How Do Pharmaceutical Drugs Get in Drinking Water?

First of all, it’s a fact: many prescription drugs, plus over-the-counter drugs, have been found in public water supplies serving millions, virtually all over the United States and Europe.

The New York Times and the Associated Press have both reported on these findings in recent months, with widely printed, broadcast and webcast stories carrying headlines like, “Probe finds drugs in drinking water.”

Part of the problem is hospitals, pharmacies, clinics and doctor’s offices washing out-of-date or unwanted drugs down drains. Leaky septic tanks are another suggested source. Some 40 percent of antibiotics manufactured in America are fed to livestock as a growth stimulant, and manure from these animals is another likely source of drugs in drinking water. A small part may come from manufacturing plants, but these are the only potential sources that are carefully monitored.

Finally, you and I are a major cause of the problem.

Pharmaceutical drugs get in drinking water when people on medication go to the toilet: they excrete drugs not fully absorbed by the body, plus metabolized byproducts. Also, many people dispose of unwanted drugs by flushing them down the toilet.

Water companies treat the waste before discharging it into rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and then treat it again before it enters our drinking water supplies. But our water treatment plants were never designed to remove drugs from our drinking water; they are designed to get rid of disease germs, odors, and long-known hazards like lead and PCBs. Not surprisingly, these water treatments don’t remove all traces of drugs.

Amount of drugs is small, but is it safe?

The amount of pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water is nearly always very small, usually measured in parts per billion. But many different drugs have been found in public water supplies, in endless combinations. And we drink the water year after year. No one really knows whether it’s safe to do so.

“We recognize it is a growing concern and we’re taking it very seriously.”
said Benjamin H. Grumbles, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assistant administrator for water.

What are these drugs?

Here are a few:

Anti-epileptic drugs and tranquilizers found in Southern California; a sex hormone in San Francisco; antibiotics and other medications in Tucson, Arizona; pharmaceutical drugs for pain, infection, cholesterol control, asthma and heart conditions in Philadelphia; carbamazepine, a mood stabilizer, and a metabolized byproduct of angina medication in Northern New Jersey.

It’s not just public water systems that suffer from drugs in drinking water. Pharmaceutical drugs have been found in private wells, too. Bottled water is also affected. Bottlers do not test or treat for pharmaceuticals, and 40 percent of bottled water is just repackage tap water.

The good news: You can take practical, cost-effective action

Here are some reasonable things you can do:

1. Avoid bottled water. At a cost ranging from just under a dollar up to $10 a gallon, it’s the world’s most expensive answer to pharmaceutical drugs found in drinking water. More than 80 percent of the bottles end up in landfills; chemicals leach from the plastic bottle into the water and may affect our health; and the petroleum used would fuel about 100,000 cars each year. Even then, it’s not a solution: nearly half is just bottled tap water, as noted above.

2. Don’t flush unneeded drugs down the toilet. If possible, treat them as you would unused paint or household chemicals and turn them into a local center to be disposed of, often by incineration. At worst, wrap them up and put them in the garbage.

3. Don’t use deodorants or other personal care items containing the antibiotic triclosan.

4. Consider organic meats, raised without a diet of antibiotics.

5. Consider a quality home water filter, then bottle your own water if you wish. Use a glass container or one of a few water bottles on the market that aren’t plastic.