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Drugs Found in Much of Nation's Drinking Water

Mar 11, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Drugs have tainted much of the drinking water in many American cities.  Antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, sex hormones and many other pharmaceuticals have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans in 24 major metropolitan areas, according to an Associated Press (AP) investigation.  This is worrisome to scientists who are concerned about long-term ramifications.

We take pills and our bodies absorb some of the medications; however, some drugs pass through our bodies and are flushed down the toilet.  This wastewater is treated before it is released into reservoirs, rivers, or lakes and some is cleansed at drinking water treatment plants before being piped back to us.   Unfortunately, most treatments do not remove all drug residue.  Researchers do not yet know the exact risks from decades of ongoing exposure to combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals; however, recent studies revealed startling effects on human cells and wildlife.  "We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Members of the AP National Investigative Team reviewed hundreds of scientific reports; analyzed federal drinking water databases; visited environmental study sites and treatment plants; interviewed over 230 officials, academics, and scientists; and surveyed the nation's 50 largest cities and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all 50 states.  

The AP learned that officials in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said testing indicated 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including t pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness, and heart medications.  Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were found in treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California.  US Geological Survey researchers analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment plant serving 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey and found metabolized angina medicine and mood-stabilizing carbamazepine.  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 drugs.

The federal government doesn't require testing and hasn't set safety limits for drugs in water and some providers only screen for one or two pharmaceuticals.  Of the 62 major providers contacted, the water for only 28 was tested.  The other 34 include Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Florida; Baltimore, Maryland; Phoenix, Arizona; Boston, Massachusetts; and New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, which delivers water to 9 million people.  

The investigation found watersheds—natural sources of most of the nation's water supply—are contaminated.  Tests conducted in 35 of the 62 major providers’ watersheds found pharmaceuticals in 28.  The New York state health department and the USGS tested the city's water source and found trace concentrations including heart medicine, antibiotics, estrogen, anti-convulsants, a mood stabilizers, and a tranquilizer.  City water officials insist, "New York City's drinking water continues to meet all federal and state regulations regarding drinking water quality in the watershed and the distribution system."  Regulations do not address trace pharmaceuticals.  In several cases, officials at municipal or regional water providers said pharmaceuticals had not been detected, but the AP obtained test results conducted by independent researchers indicated otherwise.

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