From Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit, Michigan to Louisville, Kentucky, drugs have been found in the drinking water supply in 24 major metropolitan areas.
In a five month Associated Press investigation, it has been discovered that there are pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones, in the water supply of over 41 million Americans.
The amounts of these pharmaceuticals are small and do not measure into any prescribed dosages but officials are worried about the long term consequences of drinking from these contaminated water supplies over a period of time.
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.
The assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Benjamin H. Grumbles, admits, "We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously."
Some of the key results found in this five month investigation conducted by the Associated press are as follows:
_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 report goes on to say that our federal government doesn't have any specific requirements for testing and doesn't set any safety limits for drugs in the drinking water.
Even more worrisome to those that drink tap water, is that out of 62 major water providers contacted, only 28 actually tested the drinking water.
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.
Water providers rarely disclose the results of tests either and the reason for that is given by the head of a group representing major California suppliers, when he said the public, "doesn't know how to interpret the information" and might be unduly alarmed,"
Furthermore, some water providers only test for a couple of types of drugs, leaving open the probability that other drugs are contained in the water but are not tested for.
The Associated press investigation also included watersheds which is the natural source for the majority of the nations drinking water and they found that they were also 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 Associated press requested interviews with the NYC water officials, which were declined but in a statement they the issued they state, "New York City's drinking water continues to meet all federal and state regulations regarding drinking water quality in the watershed and the distribution system", the problem there being that the regulations do not address trace pharmaceuticals.
The contamination is not just a problem in the United States though, according to the AP, More than 100 different pharmaceuticals have been detected in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and streams throughout the world, including Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe and the Swiss lakes and North Sea.
In Canada, a study by a national research institute of 20 drinking water treatment plants in Ontario, found nine different types drugs in water samples and in Japan, health officials are calling for studies after detecting prescription drugs in drinking water at seven different sites.
If that isn't disturbing enough the AP also reports that adding chlorine, which is a common practice at water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic.
A microbiologist, Thomas White, who is a consultant for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, says, "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."
His opinion is countered by Mary Buzby, who is the director of environmental technology for drug maker Merck & Co. Inc, and she asserts, "There's no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they're at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms."
In favor of Buzby's opinion, recent laboratory research has found that even small amounts of pharmaceuticals affect human embryonic kidney cells, making the kidney cells grew too slowly, human blood cells which show biological activity associated with inflammation, and human breast cancer cells which proliferated too quickly.
Human beings are not the only ones being affected, wildlife is also showing signs of being damaged across the nation.
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.
The last word goes to Shane Snyder, research and development project manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who says, "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. 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."
If you will excuse me now, this writer has to run to the store for a couple cases of bottled water.