Congratulations if you are one of the three in ten Americans who don’t take any prescription drugs.
But don’t pat yourself on the back too soon, because in all likelihood you are ingesting a veritable cocktail of drugs — everything from antibiotics to heart medications to sex hormones.
That’s because all these unwanted pharmaceuticals are lurking in your water supply. Keep reading for the full story. . .
At the beginning of the millennium the US Geological Survey drew water samples from 139 streams in 30 states.
In eight out of ten samples they found traces of one or more drugs. These included “antibiotics, antidepressants, blood thinners, heart medications (ACE inhibitors, calcium-channel blockers, digoxin), hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), and painkillers.”
In 2008 the Associated Press carried out their own five-month investigation. They looked at 24 major cities supplying 41 million Americans with tap water.
The AP found traces of antibiotics, heart medications, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, birth control pills, sex hormones and more.
The city that came out worst was Philadelphia, where 64 drugs or their byproducts were present in people’s drinking water. There were twelve in Oklahoma’s water, 16 in New York City’s, twelve in San Diego’s and ten in Atlanta’s. And if you think your countertop or under-the-sink water filter removes them, keep reading. . .
Every Sample Contained a Blood Pressure Drug
The Environmental Protection Agency conducted its own study, published in 2014. It measured 56 drugs from 50 large wastewater treatment plants across the United States.
They found the hypertension drug hydrochlorothiazide in every specimen. Beta blockers, metoprolol and atenolol, and the epilepsy drug carbamazepine were found in more than nine out of ten samples. Over half tested positive for at least 25 drugs.
Biologist Mitchell Kostich, who led the study, said, “We were surprised to find that many drugs occurring across all the wastewater plants. We were also surprised to see so many drugs of a particular class – the high blood pressure medications.”
In the most recent study — published in May, 2016 — 59 small streams stretching from Maryland to Georgia were analyzed for 108 pharmaceuticals. An average of six drugs were detected at each site, with one river containing 45. The worst offending drug was metformin, the most common drug prescribed for diabetes. This appeared at almost every site.
The reason for all this contamination is the sheer amount of drugs in the environment, modern manufacturing systems which make drugs more stable and long lasting, and the huge amount that’s wasted.
Because drugs are not all absorbed and utilized by the body, a substantial amount passes through the kidneys, into the toilet bowl, and then into the wastewater treatment system. To make matters worse, some people also flush pills that are unwanted or past their use-by date.
The filters and other purification measures in sewer systems and water treatment plants are not fine enough to catch tiny particles of drugs. Those that enter the system by way of urine are probably only a molecule or a few molecules in size. They survive water treatment and find their way back into rivers and reservoirs. The next city downstream drinks that water.
Livestock drugs and hormones from agricultural runoffs are another big source. As most of us know, factory farms feed cattle, chicken and pigs huge, stupefying amounts of these pharmaceuticals. Those often find their way into our water.
It seems like drugs in water are practically immortal. . .
Private Wells are No Protection
Even if you are one of the 44 million Americans who drink water from private wells, you are not protected. Landfills, residential development, farming and backyard septic systems can all lead to contamination.
Of 20 wells tested in Cape Cod, two out of three found traces of pharmaceuticals. Cape Cod is a densely populated area so this does not surprise me. Wells (like mine) in more remote, rural locations probably have less contamination. I’m on a mountaintop, not drinking someone else’s runoff. Most wells are not so happily situated.
While the regulatory bodies assure us that the quantity of drugs found in drinking water is too small to be a problem, not all agree.
According to one of the world’s leading experts in this field, Klaus Kuemmerer, professor of sustainable chemistry at Germany’s University of Lüneberg, “We don’t know what it means if you have a lifelong uptake of drugs at very low concentrations.”
His concern was echoed by Nick Schroech, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Center.
“The scary thing for me is not one particular drug…it’s potentially hundreds or thousands of compounds interacting with each other and how that affects aquatic life and human health.”
What Can I Do to Avoid Drinking Drugs?
Home filters can’t remove pharmaceuticals, and bottled water is often the product of municipal water supplies, purified further by the private bottler.
Only reverse osmosis will remove virtually all drug contaminants, but these systems are expensive, and involve additional maintenance and installation costs. Also, for every gallon of clean water produced, they waste four (which could be used for washing or watering the garden, if there’s a way to capture them).
A new development is a counter-top reverse osmosis unit called AquaTru. This resolves the cost, maintenance, installation and waste issues.
The manufacturers believe it will remove 100% of prescription drugs (and close to 100% of 128 other contaminants) but since there are so many of them, the makers only feel comfortable in claiming the system removes 99%. Green Valley and its related companies have no connection with AquaTru, and we haven’t verified their claims.