Our drinking water is full of scary stuff, not the least of which is prescription drugs that make their way from human bodies though the sewage system, filtration and arrive back in our taps more or less intact.
Yuck, you say? Yes, yuck.
You see, we’re a nation of prescription drug junkies. It (almost) goes without saying that what goes in comes out, so those who pop pills in the morning and they come out during the day and are flushed right into our water system. Some of us even flush unneeded medications down the toilet.
Three important studies took a deep look at the problem of pharmaceuticals in municipal drinking water.
The first, in 2006, scientists at the Southern Nevada Water Authority decided to check out the theory that folks who drink municipal water are being exposed to pharmaceuticals in amounts that could cause health problems.
They looked at drinking water that services 328 million Americans and tested for 51 compounds in addition to the expected toxic chlorine and fluoride.
Here’s what they found:
- Atenolol, a beta-blocker used to treat cardiovascular disease
- Atrazine, an organic herbicide banned in the European Union, but still used in the US, which has been implicated in the decline of fish stocks and in changes in animal behavior
- Carbamazepine, a mood-stabilising drug used to treat bipolar disorder, amongst other things
- Estrone, an estrogen hormone secreted by the ovaries and blamed for causing gender-bending changes in fish
- Gemfibrozil, an anti-cholesterol drug
- Meprobamate, a tranquilizer widely used in psychiatric treatment
- Naproxen, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory linked to increases in asthma incidence
- Phenytoin, an anticonvulsant that has been used to treat epilepsy
- Sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic used against the Streptococcus bacteria, which is responsible for tonsillitis and other diseases
- TCEP, a reducing agent used in molecular biology
- Trimethoprim, another antibiotic
A World Health Organization (WHO) study published in 2011 confirmed those findings and those concerns.
Then a 2014 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study looked at the drinking water of 50 of the country’s largest waste treatment plants representing about 15% of the treated waste water in the country. They found concentration of 56 active prescription drugs at far higher concentrations than scientists had expected.
The toxic soup included aspirin, acetaminophen, Viagra, statin drugs, codeine and other pain killers.
Worse yet, the analysis showed a high concentration of endocrine disrupting drugs, including birth control pills and other hormonal drugs, including estradriol, the drug that stops ovulation in most birth control pills and tamoxifen, the drug given as part of the long-term treatment for breast cancer.
Blood pressure medications were the highest concentrations in drinking water, the EPA found, followed by antibiotics.
The EPA researchers expressed concerns that antibiotic residues found in drinking water could contribute to antibiotics resistant bacterial strains, something that is already a major health problem.
Environmental experts note that hormone disruptors have profound effects on aquatic and plant life at extremely low levels, and no one knows yet at what level the drugs become toxic to humans or how they interact with other pharmaceuticals in water and in an individual’s prescription regimen.
To add fuel to the fire, a subsequent study found concerning levels of methadone, a narcotic used to lessen the symptoms of drug withdrawal and to treat chronic pain. A chemical reaction takes places when methadone interacts N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), a chemical commonly used in water disinfection and becomes a potent cancer–causing compound.
Ay yi-yi! It might make you want to adopt the Charlie Chaplin water regimen: Never drink water because …. I’ll leave the rest for now.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the concentrations are extremely low and probably don’t pose a risk for most healthy people. EPA scientists that a person who drinks two liters of municipal water a day might accumulate about one dose in an entire year, but they concede that the effects on infants, children, people with compromised immune systems or metabolic disease are unknown.
We also have no idea of the long-term effects of consuming all of this mish-mash at once. Knowing that drugs interact with each other all the time, it’s not out of the scope of possibility that we are creating some really serious problems here.
What to do:
Sadly, if you are stuck drinking municipal water, you don’t have a lot of choices. Even the most sophisticated filtration equipment is unlikely to be able to filter out all the pharmaceuticals.
A reverse osmosis water filter might help, but I can’t find any solid evidence to confirm that.
Bottled spring water is another option. Be sure the label says “spring water.” Many bottled water products are nothing more than tap water.
That’s another of many reasons why we live in the country and get our water from a deep well. If you can’t move to the country, maybe you should consider making a move to the countryside a long-term life plan. In the meantime, maybe you have a friend who will let you fill water jugs from her well.