Think Before You Drink

By Christina Birchfield | 1/16/2014

People in Charleston, W. Va., were unable to drink their water because of contamination because of a chemical spill. But categorized in the continuing ewww factor is that nationwide our potable water is contaminated with medicine.


Some 300,000 people in Charleston, W. Va., could not use their tap water for anything at all. No showers, no teeth brushing, no cooking. The lack of water essentially shut down the riverside city. Even the fire hydrants had to be flushed out once the licorice-smelling, coal-cleaning chemical leak was stopped.

The National Guard trucked in potable water. President Obama declared a state of emergency. The problem? 7,500 gallons or more of MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, that leaked from a ruptured 35,000-gallon storage tank. The chemical is used in coal processing. The chemical tank farm is near the river that supplies Charleston’s water.

This latest report on contaminated water had blogger Robert O. Young of Articles of Health posting. Young’s writing had us stepping back to examine more widespread and insidious water contamination reports that are unresolved and ongoing. In 2008, the Associated Press (AP) conducted a widespread investigation of prescription medications in drinking water. Much, maybe even most, drinking water is full of medicine.

A soup of pharmaceuticals—from antibiotics to pain pills to seizure medications to antidepressants to hormones—have been measured in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million people in the United States, according to the AP investigation. The AP called the water “pharma-water.”

So far the amounts are tiny but measurable. Water companies claim the water they provide customers is safe. However the mere presence of such a variety of medications worries scientists about the long-term health consequences to people, animals and the environment.

Over a five-month investigation, AP learned that medications had been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 of the 28 major metropolitan areas nationwide it tested. It asked for data from 62 areas, but only 28 provided the information.

When asked why the public does not know about pharmaceuticals in drinking water, some California officials, for example, told AP that the public does not know how to interpret information and might be unduly alarmed.

It is no secret how medication gets in the water supply: People take medication. The body excretes it into the wastewater system. Treated sewer water (but not treated to remove all contaminants) gets discharged to recharge the water table. Water gets treated again when it is pumped from wells or rivers or reservoirs. However, there are no treatments that remove all potential contaminants.

The AP interviewed Benjamin H Grumbles, then assistant administrator for water at the EPA, who said, “We recognize it as a growing concern, and we’re taking it very seriously.” The AP Investigative Team reviewed numerous reports and databases and interviewed some 230 academics, officials and scientists. They recounted the results of studies that found “alarming effects on human body cells and wildlife.” Documented effects included gender shifting in fish as well as negative effects on other marine wildlife and algae.

Municipalities can be damned for both pharmaceuticals for which they do and do not test. Some only test for a few drugs. Philadelphia tests for many; its water included 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, but that does not mean Philadelphia's water is worst than most, just that it tests for more. Their report said medicines included those for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart disease.

In Southern California treated drinking water that serves 18.5 million had detectable levels of drugs to treat epilepsy and anxiety. Washington, D.C., water had six discernable pharmaceuticals. Tucson, Ariz., area water had three medications including an antibiotic. Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, New York City and Phoenix were among the major municipalities for whom the AP did not receive data.

The AP was able to tests the watersheds in 35 of 62 providers and found pharmaceuticals in 28 of them. Municipalities served by six of the watersheds in which the AP collected samples that proved to be contaminated do not test their drinking water. In the New York City watershed tested by the New York State Health Department and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), there were trace amounts of heart medications, those used to treat infections, estrogen, seizure medication, a mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer. New York City itself was one of the municipalities for which the AP was unable to get data, though they did request it.

Of 28 municipalities who reported results in the AP Investigation, only Albuquerque, N.M., Austin, Texas, and Virginia Beach, Va., reported testing their water and not finding discernable levels of pharma contamination.

Of course, only when a municipality is looking for specific contaminants will it potentially find them. The AP found that some water providers were only screening for one or two pharmaceuticals. If no one is looking, it does not mean that the contaminants are not present—just that they are undiscovered. The federal government does not require any testing, nor has it set any safety limits for pharmaceuticals in drinking water, a problem compounded by the fact that pharmaceuticals are tested in isolation. Though we know that some drugs interact with citrus and some with each other, there is not an exhaustive list of how drugs affect people, animals and the environment when combined. And aside from efforts to collect and properly dispose of unused pharmaceuticals, little appears to have been done since AP’s 2008 expose.

And pharma-water begs another question? What can you tell about the mood, tone and tenor of an area’s population when you know what medications predominate in their drinking water?

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