Drugs Found In Drinking Water

Last modified on March 10th, 2008

I read this fairly alarming (although not entirely surprising) article yesterday detailing how prescription drugs are being detected in municipal water sources.

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.

• Officials in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city’s watersheds.

Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment plant, which serves 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey, and found a metabolized angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking water.

A sex hormone was detected in the drinking water of San Francisco, California.

The drinking water for Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas tested positive for six pharmaceuticals.

In terms of what that means for health, there are potentially far reaching implications of prolonged exposure to prescription drugs, even at trace levels:

But at a conference last summer, Mary Buzby — director of environmental technology for drug maker Merck & Co. Inc. — said: “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.”

Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation.

Also, pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the nation and around the globe, research shows. Notably, male fish are being feminized, creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel species at the foundation of the pyramid of life — such as earthworms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory, studies show.

Effects from changes in diet and hormones in nature has already induced many health related changes. For example, 150 years ago the average age of puberty in females was around 17 years of age. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for girls around the age of 12 to enter into puberty. And while the reasons are still debated, there is evidence that exposure to female hormones in the environment (as well as hormonal changes due to insulin resistance) is partially responsible.

I wonder at what point the risks and adverse results from the ever increasing use of prescription drugs will outweigh the potential benefits. As the population of this planet continues to increase, more and more cases of us upsetting the balance are going to emerge. I read a while ago that at our current growth rate, humans will be standing shoulder to shoulder on every piece of habitable land sometime before the year 2500.

Writing that, I was somehow reminded of this fictional movie scene:

Obviously we’d be all dead long before that, having either decimated our environment or pillaged all sources of food. But clearly the survival of the human race depends largely on whether or not we can find some sort of balance with the environment, and ultimately this planet.

9 responses to “Drugs Found In Drinking Water”

  1. Beth says:

    50 years ago, the average age of puberty in females was 18? That seems *really* old to me. You hear all the time that kids are hitting puberty earlier, but a 6 year difference in 50 years is huge!

  2. Raul says:

    It is scary, though, if you think about it – the presence of traces of drugs in drinking water also means that our current water treatment processes are fundamentally flawed and require technological changes and innovation!

    A friend of mine is writing her PhD on antibiotic presence on water and agricultural land in BC. I should send her this link to your blog. She’ll find it interesting.

  3. Duane Storey says:

    Actually, I revised the numbers slightly after double-checking some stats this morning. But they were close:

    The first 100 years that medical records were kept on the age of onset of menstruation saw continuous drops. Between about 1850 and 1950 in Europe, the average age of a girl’s first period dropped from about 17 to about 13. (The U.S. doesn’t have good data earlier than the 20th century, though trends were probably similar, says Steingraber, who prepared the August 2007 report after examining hundreds of studies on potential dietary, lifestyle and environmental causes of early puberty.)


    The age of first menstruation has dropped too, at a rate of about one month per decade for the last 30 years, according to a January 2003 study in Pediatrics. Today, the U.S. average for first period is 12.5 for white girls, 12.06 for black girls and 12.09 for Latinas.

  4. Kasia says:

    I have been convinced for years that my small boobs were a direct result of growing up on an acreage and eating home-grown chickens and beef and drinking well water. My suspicions have been confirmed! Thanks Duaner! Now please excuse me, I’m off to buy another padded bra.

  5. Kasia says:

    P.S. Your blog has not made fall-back-SPRING-FORWARD change (along with my stupid Rogers cell phone).

  6. “But clearly the survival of the human race depends largely on whether or not we can find some sort of balance with the environment, and ultimately this planet.”

    You absolutely right about that one Duane! Civilized humanity doesn’t seem to know a thing when it comes to finding balance with their land base, but that balance is ultimately the only thing that can stop humanity as we know it from becoming extinct. But there is a lot more to finding this balance, and I don’t think that people are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Everyone is looking for an easy way out, a way to cover-up the damage done…

  7. Raquita says:

    I worry about this stuff all the time as I am raising two girls, and hte last hting I want is for them to be rockin DD’s by the age of fourteen like mommy was.

    thanks forhte great post…

    can you contact me via email about your plug in – I have a quesiton…

  8. Alexa Booth says:

    Is pretty much why I avoid drugs. And tap water. :/

  9. Adrienne says:

    Honestly, I can’t say that I’m surprised.

    I took an Environmental Science course at UNT a few years ago, and one part of it involved a trip to a wastewater treatment plant. Because Denton is a college town, the guy who worked there said that fall-spring, there was a high amount of estrogen from the girls who were taking HBC, as well as a lot of used rubbers floating in the system before they were filtered out.

    Looking at my family, I’m beginning to think that my small frame can be attributed to the fact that I can’t stand cow’s milk, and only eat it in the form of cheese (one of few dairy-related weaknesses). Don’t fret, I get my calcium from chocolate soymilk.

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