Our Pharmaceutically-Fouled Water Supply

My dad installed a reverse osmosis water filtration system in our house decades ago for religious reasons; as a Christian Scientist, he objected to the City of Los Angeles imposing its “medicated”—i.e. fluoridated---drinking water on us.

Looks like you were ahead of your time, Dad! The Associated Press has just released the results of an investigation showing that:

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…

…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.

I blogged about this problem a year and a half ago in a post called “Sexually Confused Fish Popping Up In The Potomac,” about another AP report citing concerns that these “endocrine disruptors” were suspected in a dramatic rise in malformed male fish found in DC waterways. In that post I noted that:

Back in 1996, The EPA identified endocrine disruption as one of its top six research priorities, but ten years later, according to Newsday, the EPA has yet to begin testing any candidate chemicals for their endocrine-disrupting potential.

So, what’s the EPA’s reaction to the AP’s latest findings?

''We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously,'' said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Grumbles--great name for a guy whose primary duty probably involves a lot of fancy foot-dragging.

While the pharmaceutical industry is insisting, by and large, that this contamination of our water supply is not a cause for worry, the AP quotes Mary Buzby, director of environmental technology for drug manufacturer Merck, as saying ''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.''

Americans are ingesting prescription drugs at record rates, but that’s not the only source of contamination. Veterinary drugs used to treat our pets for “arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, dementia, and even obesity,” and drugs used to treat livestock, are a factor, too, according to the AP. And the problem’s not limited to surface waters, either:

…Pharmaceuticals also permeate aquifers deep underground, source of 40 percent of the nation's water supply. Federal scientists who drew water in 24 states from aquifers near contaminant sources such as landfills and animal feed lots found minuscule levels of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs…

…Water sampled downstream of a Nebraska feedlot had steroid levels four times as high as the water taken upstream. Male fathead minnows living in that downstream area had low testosterone levels and small heads.

Maybe it’s time for the researchers to stop focusing on male fathead minnows and start taking a closer look at how all this stuff is affecting two-legged male fatheads. In the meantime, the beverage industry is ramping up production of “enhanced” bottled waters fortified with all kinds of supposedly nifty nutrients. Save your money, folks! Take it from the tap—apparently, it’s got traces of every prescription drug you could possibly need, and then some. Unless, of course, that’s against your religion.

Originally posted on TakePart.com.