An investigation by the Associated Press (AP) has revealed
that the drinking water of at least 41 million people in the
United States is contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs.
It has long been known that drugs are not wholly absorbed
or broken down by the human body. Significant amounts of any
medication taken eventually pass out of the body, primarily
through the urine.
"People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs
it and it disappears, but of course that's not the case,"
EPA scientist Christian Daughton said.
While sewage is treated before being released back into the
environment, and water from reservoirs or rivers is also treated
before being funneled back into the drinking
water supply, these treatments are not able to remove
all traces of medications. And so far, the EPA has not regulated
the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, meaning
that there are no laws in existence today that protect consumers
from this increasingly dangerous chemical contaminant of the
Medications for animals also contaminating the water
Drugs given to animals are also entering the water supply.
One study found that 10 percent of the steroids given to cattle
pass directly through their bodies, while another study found
that steroid concentrations in the water downstream of a Nebraska
feedlot were four times as high as the water upstream. Male
fish downstream of the feedlot were found to have depressed
levels of testosterone and smaller than normal heads, most
likely due to the pharmaceutical contamination in their water.
"It brings a question to people's minds that if the fish were
affected ... might there be a potential problem for humans?"
said EPA research biologist Vickie Wilson.
While the concentration of drugs in drinking water tends to
be low, some medications, such as hormones, are able to operate
potently even at concentrations of one part per billion. To
make matters worse, there is evidence that the chlorine commonly
used to treat drinking water may make some pharmaceutical
chemicals more toxic. Thus, the typical claim that "pharmaceuticals
are only present in very low concentrations, and therefore
could not be dangerous" holds no water (pardon the pun). Not
only are some chemicals potentiated (made more toxic) by other
chemicals in the water, but to date, there have been absolutely
no studies looking at the increased danger posed by combinations
of pharmaceuticals now being found.
In other words, nobody knows the level of risk that may be
associated with the chemical cocktail of pharmaceuticals now
being found in the water supply. No one can say with any degree
of honesty that the drug contamination is safe, meaning that
the real risks to human remain entirely unknown.
56 different drug chemicals in the drinking water
To determine the extent of drinking water contamination, an
Associated Press investigative team surveyed the water providers
of the 50 largest cities in the United States and 52 smaller
communities, analyzed federal databases and scientific reports,
and interviewed government and corporate officials.
The investigation found widespread evidence of drinking water
contaminated with both over-the-counter and prescription drugs,
including painkillers, hormones, antibiotics, anti-convulsants,
anti-depressants, and drugs for cancer or heart disease. Of
the 28 major cities that tested their water supplies for pharmaceuticals,
only two said those tests showed no pharmaceutical contamination.
In Philadelphia, 56 different drugs and drug byproducts were
found in treated drinking water, and 63 were found in the
Of the 35 watersheds that had been tested, 28 were found to
be contaminated. Deep-water aquifers near landfills, feedlots
and other contaminant sources in 24 states were also found
to contain pharmaceuticals. This means that even in rural
areas where people get their water from wells, drinking water
might still contain drugs.
According to researcher Anthony Aufdenkampe of the Stroud
Water Research Center, watersheds in rural areas can be contaminated
when people's septic tanks malfunction. "Septic systems are
essentially small treatment plants that are essentially unmanaged
and therefore tend to fail," he said.
Cities do not test the water for pharmaceutical pollution
Even these numbers do not give the full scale of the problem,
the AP suggests, because many water providers simply do not
test for this kind of contamination, which is not regulated
by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of the 52 small
water providers surveyed by AP, only one screened its water
Other providers do screen, but they conceal the results from
the public. According to a group that represents California
water providers, the public "doesn't know how to interpret
the information" from such tests and therefore does not need
to hear it! Even companies that test and report their data
often screen for only a few chemicals, creating a skewed impression
of how contaminated the water actually is.
Water bottling companies also do not screen for pharmaceutical
contamination in their water products. It is highly likely,
at the same time, that soft drink bottling companies using
local tap water supplies to make their beverages are potentially
using pharmaceutical-contaminated water.
The EPA sticks its head in the ground over pharmaceutical
According to Shane Snyder, research and development project
manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, researchers
looking into the extent of water contamination are avoiding
the important questions.
"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," Snyder said. "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."
A total of over 100 pharmaceutical products have been detected
in water supplies in North America, Europe and Asia, including
remote regions such as Swiss lakes and the North Sea. And
bottled or filtered water, the AP report notes, is not necessarily
safer, as the filters used in homes or bottling plants are
rarely designed to remove pharmaceutical residue.
Drug companies, for their part, have done nothing to accept
responsibility for the environmental health impact of their
polluting chemicals. In fact, Big Pharma hasn't even yet acknowledged
the fact that their products are "pollutants" in any way.
Like most pharmaceutical consumers, the drug companies hope
to just flush this issue down the toilet and pretend it never
The health impact of pharmaceutical contaminants in water
Very little research has been conducted on the specific effects
of trace drugs in drinking water, but what evidence is there
gives cause for alarm. Contamination of environmental water
sources has caused male fish to exhibit female traits and
led to damaging effects on other wildlife species. Laboratory
research indicates that small levels of drugs can cause cancer
cells to proliferate faster, slow kidney cell growth and cause
inflammation in blood cells. At a time when the American population
is suffering from skyrocketing infertility and hormone imbalances,
it seems outrageous that health authorities would not be looking
more closely at this issue and working on ways to protect
the public from pharmaceutical pollution.
Because water is consumed regularly in large quantities over
a lifetime, and because humans are exposed to many combinations
of dozens of different drugs, the effects on the human body
may be significantly greater than those seen in the lab. And
unlike most pollutants, drugs are specifically designed to
cause changes in the human body, thus they are far less likely
to be "inert" than other chemicals that might be found in
the water supply.
"These are chemicals that are designed to have very specific
effects at very low concentrations," said zoologist John Sumpter
of London's Brunel University. "That's what pharmaceuticals
do. So when they get out to the environment, it should not
be a shock to people that they have effects."