What You Need to Know About Drug Water

By Lizzie Buchen | March 10, 2008 4:57 pm

water.jpgThe dramatic thriller involving our drug-contaminated drinking water, starring a 2,500-word article by the Associated Press, has been taking over the headlines today (that is, at least, until the Feds found out how much Spitzer paid for hookers) . During the AP’s investigation, they reviewed published scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants, and interviewed hundreds of officials, academics, and scientists. The results: trace amounts of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones contaminate the drinking water of 41 million Americans, including the watersheds of 28 metropolitan areas.

The Extent of the Problem
So how bad is it, exactly? Are we all going to die? Are we all high? Will our sons grow breasts? Well, it’s unclear, but no one thinks we need to prepare our stillsuits quite yet. The most important issue to understand is that we’re not exactly drinking bong water—the drugs were found in miniscule amounts of parts per billion or trillion, which is considerably below the levels of a medical dose. And there’s currently no evidence that drugs in our water have been responsible for any negative health effects in humans.

But what worries many scientists is the idea that even in low amounts, certain drugs, and particularly drug combinations, may harm humans when taken in large amounts over long periods of time—like, say, a lifetime. Another concern is that pharmaceuticals, unlike pollutants like PCBs and mercury, were intended to affect the human body, so low levels may be surprisingly potent. Recent research has found that ultra-low combinations of drugs can damage human cells, but the relevance to human beings has been questioned.

What is clear, however, is that increasing numbers of fish appear to be taking birth control. Another story by the AP notes that feminized males, masculinized females, and hermaphrodites are showing up at disturbing rates in America’s rivers, and it’s likely that human drugs are to blame. And, among other tragedies, the fathead minnow’s head is getting smaller.

What You Don’t Know Can’t Mutate You
The data are startling, but the investigation doesn’t reveal anything the water providers didn’t already know—this was a compilation of published articles and databases. So why the secrecy? There’s a long list of reasons summed up in a third release by the AP; the primary explanations are 1) keeping the over-reactive public calm and 2) national security.

It’s true that sensitive issues, such as starting the day with estrogen-spiked coffee, are vulnerable to misinterpretation and exaggeration. And why, if the research is so inconclusive, should the upper echelons of the water industry pass the burdensome knowledge of contaminated water onto the shoulders of the innocent American? The article quotes Philadelphia Water Department spokeswoman Laura Copeland, who said, “It would be irresponsible to communicate to the public about this issue, as doing so would only generate questions that scientific research has not yet answered. We don’t want to create the perception where people would be alarmed.”

As for the national-security issue, the explanation is, perhaps not surprisingly, vague. In the article, Ron Rhodes, a water treatment plant supervisor in Emporia, Kansas, said he wouldn’t disclose whether his community’s source water or drinking water had been tested for pharmaceuticals. His explanation? “Well, it’s because of 9/11. We want everybody to guess…We’re not putting out more information than we have to put out.”

Surprisingly, scientists and academics were equally tight-lipped. They, too, anticipate alarmist misinterpretation by the public. Harvard University professor Peter Rogers, as quoted in the AP release, says, “I think the government and utilities are quite right to be very skittish about telling people their results. People will claim it is causing all sorts of problems. If I were a water utility, I would stop those measurements right away because if you measure something, it will get out, and people will overreact. I can just imagine a whole slew of lawsuits.”

The “ignorance is bliss” strategy didn’t work out well for China when the government tried to conceal a benzene spill, but this is a different situation, because the effects on human health are, thus far, unknown. It’s now conclusive, if it wasn’t before, that the pharmaceuticals are there, so the emphasis should now be switched from detection to longitudinal studies. By definition, these will take a long time, but they’re essential to perform before drastic action is taken. In the meantime, we can work at developing improved filtering techniques (reverse osmosis and nanofiltration membranes may be more effective, but are currently too expensive for large-scale use).

Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, recognizes that the pollution is “a growing concern and we’re taking it very seriously,” but overall there’s no reason to stop drinking water—not that you really have a choice.

Image courtesy of Darwin Bell via Creative Commons

  • killrtrish

    whoa. very cool. I was totally confused by all the news reports and this really helps. thanks!

  • sambia523

    This doesn’t give nearly enough attention to the negative effects of pharmaceutical WASTE products in the drinking supply. The government’s secrecy about this is atrocious. The public isn’t dumb and we deserve to know the truth.

  • James Moening

    What about livestock, fish, grains and produce that maybe consumed pharmawater? Does bathing exacerbate exposure, similar to radon? Waiting for long-term studies is a miserable prospect.

  • Eli

    Well Sambia523, the public IS dumb. These are really really tiny quantities, and we have no idea if it would affect us at all. But when “the public” hears that there’s things like tranq’s and sex hormones in their water, they start panicking…it’s just an emotional response based on very limited scientific knowledge.

  • http://discovermagazine.com/ Lizzie Buchen

    Thanks for the comments. The research is really preliminary on the effects that these levels can have on human health. There is some evidence that human cells bathed in low levels of these chemicals are negatively affected, but it’s unclear whether those studies are relevant to human health. The public does tend to overreact to these sorts of issues–as Eli mentioned, it’s largely an emotional response triggered by buzz words like “drugs,” and it’s important to really understand the science before trying to interpret the findings. The findings in fish are a little disconcerting, although fish are smaller, so more vulnerable to low concentrations, and are likely to be much more sensitive to water-borne chemicals, so the connection to humans are again, tenuous.

    James, I wouldn’t think bathing would exacerbate exposure–these are all pharmaceuticals that are taken orally, so skin exposure shouldn’t matter. But you make an interesting point about other organisms that consume pharmawater. As with the water, the concentrations will be in very trace amounts (unlike mercury, which accumulates), so it’s sort of the same vague story there.

    And yes, waiting for long term experiments is not very appealing. If we can find stronger evidence that the chemicals can affect human health, e.g. longitudinal studies in other mammals like rats and monkeys, it might be reason enough to step in.

  • Lari Manz

    There is yet another pharmaceutical polluting our water supply not mentioned. Radioisotopes from nuclear medicine. For example, when a CT scan is performed the patient drinks a radiactive solution so the image shows more detail.There are more than 100 types of beta and gamma radioisotopes used in medicine for diagnosis, therapy or investigations. These are subsequently released with body waste-urine and feces- and end up in the sewage systems which have no way of filtering these particles out, so municipal water supplies also contain radioisotopes along with the drugs covered in the report.

  • Chad

    When I read the AP article, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The article itself was the very “alarmism” that is quite correctly a concern.

    A typical pill has on the order of a hundred billion trillion molecules of the active compound. Our detection limits for finding these compounds are many many orders of magnitude smaller. Of COURSE we can detect them. The question is whether they are found at a level that is of particular concern, and largely the answer is no. The AP article, as with most articles on the subject, failed to mention concentrations or the fact that the dose makes the poison.

    If you read an article about “contamination” that doesn’t give specific concentrations, quit reading. You are wasting your time.

  • Sam Perel
  • john p

    what would happen if, say, we were to actually drink bong water?

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