11 Mar 2008

Drugs in Water

Investigative journalism on drugs in the water [my Nov 2007 post]:
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.
Although there's an element of hysteria here (below dose level), there's also the unknown -- most water is not tested, we don't know what the combination of drugs does, and we don't know the long-term impact. Think bottled water will save you? Nope. And the "problem" is growing as we pop more drugs.
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.

Perhaps it's because Americans have been taking drugs - and flushing them unmetabolized or unused - in growing amounts. Over the past five years, the number of U.S. prescriptions rose 12 percent to a record 3.7 billion, while nonprescription drug purchases held steady around 3.3 billion, according to IMS Health and The Nielsen Co.

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.
Bottom Line: We live in a closed system -- what goes in comes out (somewhere), and overdosing ourselves leads to environmental pollution that comes back to haunt us. OTOH, there could be an upside: We can use an "ancient technology" to get enough fluid: drinking beer.

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