Scientists worry about long-term consequences to health after water tests reveal concentrations of prescription drugs
By Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza and Justin Pritchard
Published on Monday, Mar 10, 2008
A vast array of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones, have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.
To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe.
But the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.
In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas — from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky.
Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a group representing major California suppliers said the public ”doesn’t know how to interpret the information” and might be unduly alarmed.
How do the drugs get into the water?
People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residue.
And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals, recent studies, which have gone virtually unnoticed by the general public, have found alarming effects on human cells and wildlife.
”We recognize it is a growing concern and we’re taking it very seriously,” said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Members of the AP National Investigative Team reviewed hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 officials, academics and scientists. They also surveyed the nation’s 50 largest cities and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all 50 states.
Here are some of the key test results obtained by the AP:
- Officials in Philadelphia said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city’s watersheds.
- Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California.
- Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment plant, which serves 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey, and found a metabolized angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking water.
- A sex hormone was detected in San Francisco’s drinking water.
- The drinking water for Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas tested positive for six pharmaceuticals.
The situation is undoubtedly worse than suggested by the positive test results in the major population centers documented by the AP.
The federal government doesn’t require any testing and hasn’t set safety limits for drugs in water. Of the 62 major water providers contacted, the drinking water for only 28 was tested. Among the 34 that haven’t: Houston, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Phoenix, Boston and New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, which delivers water to 9 million people.
Some providers screen only for one or two pharmaceuticals, leaving open the possibility that others are present.
The AP’s investigation also indicates that watersheds, the natural sources of most of the nation’s water supply, also are contaminated. Tests were conducted in the watersheds of 35 of the 62 major providers surveyed by the AP, and pharmaceuticals were detected in 28.
In several cases, officials at municipal or regional water providers told the AP that pharmaceuticals had not been detected, but the AP obtained the results of tests conducted by independent researchers that showed otherwise.
Of the 28 major metropolitan areas where tests were performed on drinking water supplies, only Albuquerque; Austin, Texas; and Virginia Beach, Va.; said tests were negative. The drinking water in Dallas has been tested, but officials are awaiting results. Arlington, Texas, acknowledged that traces of a pharmaceutical were detected in its drinking water but cited post-9/11 security concerns in refusing to identify the drug.
The AP also contacted 52 small water providers — one in each state, and two each in Missouri and Texas — that serve communities with populations around 25,000. All but one said their drinking water had not been screened for pharmaceuticals; officials in Emporia, Kan., refused to answer AP’s questions, also citing post-9/11 issues.
Wells affected, too
Rural consumers who draw water from their own wells aren’t in the clear either, experts say.
Pharmaceuticals also permeate aquifers deep underground, source of 40 percent of the nation’s water supply. Federal scientists who drew water in 24 states from aquifers near contaminant sources such as landfills and animal feed lots found minuscule levels of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs.
Ask the pharmaceutical industry whether the contamination of water supplies is a problem, and officials will tell you no. ”Based on what we now know, I would say we find there’s little or no risk from pharmaceuticals in the environment to human health,” said microbiologist Thomas White, a consultant for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
If you are concerned about medicine in your water, we offer Water Testing Services.