March: biodefense & food supply safetyU.S. water supply contaminated by pharmaceuticals

Published 11 March 2008

There are 302 million people in the United States, but over the past five years, the number of U.S. prescriptions rose 12 percent to a record 3.7 billion, while nonprescription drug purchases reached 3.3 billion; ingredients of these medications find their way to, and contaminate, the U.S. water supply; federal, state, and local governments do not regulate medical discharges into drinking water

As if we did not have enough problems: 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 AP investigation reveals. The concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, however, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe. The presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of the U.S. 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 twenty-four major metropolitan areas — from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Kentucky. 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. 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 Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

AP 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 U.S. fifty largest cities and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all fifty states. Here are some of the key test results obtained by the AP:

* Officials in Philadelphia said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts