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.