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Even More Americans Affected by Pharmaceuticals in Water Than First Believed

Sep 12, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Recently, an Associated Press (AP) story that revealed that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals were present in drinking water supplies prompted a study that now reveals that even more Americans are affected by pharmaceuticals in drinking water that was previously believed.  Today’s figure is at 46 million, which is an increase from the 41 million figure reported by the AP earlier this year.

After a five-month-long inquiry conducted by the AP earlier this, it found many communities do not test for drugs in drinking water and those that do often fail to tell customers they have found medications, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones.  At that time, medications were found in drinking water supplies in 24 major metropolitan areas.  Water providers are not required to test for pharmaceuticals and the EPA’s budget for the testing of endocrine disruptors in America’s waterways was cut by 35 percent.

The AP’s investigative pieces “prompted federal and local legislative hearings, brought about calls for mandatory testing and disclosure, and led officials in at least 27 additional metropolitan areas to analyze their drinking water,” according to the AP. Positive tests were reported in 17 cases in locations that include Reno, Nevada; Savannah, Georgia; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Huntsville, Alabama.  Three other locations are pending results.

Despite this, the vast majority of U.S. cities have not tested drinking water, including the single largest water provider in the country, New York City's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which delivers water to nine million people.  In April, New York City council members insisted—during an emergency hearing—that New York drinking water be tested; however, DEP officials declared, "the testing of finished tap water is not warranted at this time."

Chicago tests revealed a cholesterol medication and a nicotine derivative.  Other cities detected carbamazepine, an anti-convulsant and officials in one of those communities—Colorado Springs—found a total of pharmaceuticals, including a tranquilizer and a hormone.  "This is obviously an emerging issue, and after the AP stories came out we felt it was the responsible thing for us to do, as a utility, to find out where we stand.  We believe that at these levels, based on current science, that the water is completely safe for our customers," said Colorado Springs spokesman Steve Berry. "We don't want to create unnecessary alarm, but at the same time we have a responsibility as a municipal utility to communicate with our customers and let them know."

Drug residues in water supplies are generally flushed into sewers and waterways through human excretion; however, many slip through sewage and drinking water treatment plants.  Meanwhile, Fargo's water director, Bruce Grubb, said the concentrations of three drugs detected in the water there were minute—in parts per trillion.  Regardless, scientists are concerned about long-term ramifications to wildlife and human health and researchers say even very diluted concentrations of pharmaceutical residues harm fish, frogs, and other aquatic species in the wild and impair the workings of human cells in the laboratory.


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