AP probe finds drugs in drinking water
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.
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.
_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.
_Three medications, including an antibiotic, were found in drinking water supplied to Tucson, Ariz.
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.
Yet officials in six of those 28 metropolitan areas said they did not go on to test their drinking water Fairfax, Va.; Montgomery County in Maryland; Omaha, Neb.; Oklahoma City; Santa Clara, Calif., and New York City.
The New York state health department and the USGS tested the source of the city's water, upstate. They found trace concentrations of heart medicine, infection fighters, estrogen, anti-convulsants, a mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer.
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.
Rural consumers who draw water from their own wells aren't in the clear either, experts say.
He suspects it escapes from failed septic tanks, maybe with other drugs. "Septic systems are essentially small treatment plants that are essentially unmanaged and therefore tend to fail," Aufdenkampe said.
Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don't necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade group. The same goes for the makers of home filtration systems.
Some drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters, tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern drinking water and wastewater treatment processes. Plus, the EPA says there are no sewage treatment systems specifically engineered to remove pharmaceuticals.
One technology, reverse osmosis, removes virtually all pharmaceutical contaminants but is very expensive for large-scale use and leaves several gallons of polluted water for every one that is made drinkable.
Another issue: There's evidence that adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic.
Human waste isn't the only source of contamination. Cattle, for example, are given ear implants that provide a slow release of trenbolone, an anabolic steroid used by some bodybuilders, which causes cattle to bulk up. But not all the trenbolone circulating in a steer is metabolized. A German study showed 10 percent of the steroid passed right through the animals.
Other veterinary drugs also play a role. Pets are now treated for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, dementia, and even obesity sometimes with the same drugs as humans. The inflation-adjusted value of veterinary drugs rose by 8 percent, to $5.2 billion, over the past five years, according to an analysis of data from the Animal Health Institute.
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.
Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation.
Also, pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the nation and around the globe, research shows. Notably, male fish are being feminized, creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel species at the foundation of the pyramid of life such as earth worms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory, studies show.
Some scientists stress that the research is extremely limited, and there are too many unknowns. They say, though, that the documented health problems in wildlife are disconcerting.
"It brings a question to people's minds that if the fish were affected ... might there be a potential problem for humans?" EPA research biologist Vickie Wilson told the AP. "It could be that the fish are just exquisitely sensitive because of their physiology or something. We haven't gotten far enough along."
With limited research funds, said Shane Snyder, research and development project manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a greater emphasis should be put on studying the effects of drugs in water.
"I think it's a shame that so much money is going into monitoring to figure out if these things are out there, and so little is being spent on human health," said Snyder. "They need to just accept that these things are everywhere every chemical and pharmaceutical could be there. It's time for the EPA to step up to the plate and make a statement about the need to study effects, both human and environmental."
To the degree that the EPA is focused on the issue, it appears to be looking at detection. Grumbles acknowledged that just late last year the agency developed three new methods to "detect and quantify pharmaceuticals" in wastewater. "We realize that we have a limited amount of data on the concentrations," he said. "We're going to be able to learn a lot more."
While Grumbles said the EPA had analyzed 287 pharmaceuticals for possible inclusion on a draft list of candidates for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, he said only one, nitroglycerin, was on the list. Nitroglycerin can be used as a drug for heart problems, but the key reason it's being considered is its widespread use in making explosives.
So much is unknown. Many independent scientists are skeptical that trace concentrations will ultimately prove to be harmful to humans. Confidence about human safety is based largely on studies that poison lab animals with much higher amounts.
There's growing concern in the scientific community, meanwhile, that certain drugs or combinations of drugs may harm humans over decades because water, unlike most specific foods, is consumed in sizable amounts every day.
Many concerns about chronic low-level exposure focus on certain drug classes: chemotherapy that can act as a powerful poison; hormones that can hamper reproduction or development; medicines for depression and epilepsy that can damage the brain or change behavior; antibiotics that can allow human germs to mutate into more dangerous forms; pain relievers and blood-pressure diuretics.
For several decades, federal environmental officials and nonprofit watchdog environmental groups have focused on regulated contaminants pesticides, lead, PCBs which are present in higher concentrations and clearly pose a health risk.
And while drugs are tested to be safe for humans, the timeframe is usually over a matter of months, not a lifetime. Pharmaceuticals also can produce side effects and interact with other drugs at normal medical doses. That's why aside from therapeutic doses of fluoride injected into potable water supplies pharmaceuticals are prescribed to people who need them, not delivered to everyone in their drinking water.
"We know we are being exposed to other people's drugs through our drinking water, and that can't be good," says Dr. David Carpenter, who directs the Institute for Health and the Environment of the State University of New York at Albany.
Don't get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.