“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.”
Wow. If drug manufacturer, Merck is copping to the presence of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water, it must be true. But, just how do the drugs get there and why is this a problem? Let’s dig in.
One of the ways drugs get into our water supply is that people are flushing their unused prescriptions down the toilet. While water from sewage is filtered and chlorinated, the drugs remain in the water. The particulate is too fine to be caught in any city sewer filtration system. But, if you test the water, there they are. Anything from epilepsy drugs, to antibiotics, to diabetes drugs, to antidepressants are found in our water supply. There are local drop-offs to dispose of pharmaceutical drugs if you need to dispose of an old or unused prescription. You should also do this with any outdated non-prescription over-the-counter drug such as pain relievers, allergy treatments, and cold remedies. Many people are highly allergic to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Your old Advil™ may seem benign to you but it’s deadly to those who are allergic. It’s best to safely dispose of them.
The less obvious way that pharmaceuticals enter the water supply is that patients who take drugs cannot metabolize the whole pill. So about 25% of that drug is flushed down the toilet (along with your vitamins) into the sewer system and ultimately into our water supply. Because so many people are taking so many drugs these days, it’s hard to estimate the amount of medications you may be ingesting in your drinking water. It depends on where you live. But, after much research, I have found that there aren’t many places in the industrialized world where you will NOT find contaminants in the water supply.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that bottled water is a safer bet than tap water. Bottled water, sometimes known as spring water, is simply filtered water. Filtered water that contains trace amounts of all kinds of chemicals, many of which are pharmaceuticals. Bottlers are only required to test their water once a week for contaminants. That doesn’t comfort me. That spring water is also housed in plastic that contains Bisphenol-A (BPA), a known endocrine disruptor, makes me even less comfortable.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) aka factory farms are another source of drug runoff. Factory farmed animals are given antibiotics, powerful steroidal growth hormones, and other drugs in concentrated amounts because of their physical size. Just as we contribute to the drugs in our sewage via our bodily secretions, so do large farm animals. That waste water runoff gets into our soil and water table eventually. Because CAFOs are big business, that’s a whole lot of animals, a whole lot of waste, and a whole lot of drugs running into our water supply. Yes, it’s treated sewage but again, they can’t filter out pharmaceuticals. Yet. Someone may be trying. But, until they can figure out a way to capitalize on that process, you won’t hear of it any time soon.
This isn’t just a problem in reservoirs and water treatment plants. Watersheds are also showing pharmaceuticals in the water table. This means that even if you have spring or well water, you could be exposed to water tainted with drugs. And, they don’t just affect humans. A study done in a Colorado river found that estrogen-containing drugs in the water are turning male fish into female fish. The Associated Press’ National Investigative Team ran their own tests and found pharmaceuticals in the drinking water of 41 million Americans. Philadelphia alone tested positive for 56 different drugs in their water supply.
There is no way to filter drugs out of the water, even in water treatment plants. Currently, the federal government does not require that cities test their water for the presence of pharmaceuticals.
Another chemical cocktail in your drinking water is personal care products. You know the sodium laurel sulfate that they tell you not to put on your skin? It’s in everything from shampoo to conditioner to body wash to body lotions, et cetera. Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) are also running down your drain into water treatment plants and their chemical ingredients are not all filtered out before they reach your tap.
If pharmaceuticals in your drinking water is of concern to you, and it should be, you can have your tap water tested by a professional. Don’t rely on your city’s report. You will get much more detailed and accurate information from a private water company. Sad, but true. If you have a well, you should also be concerned. I had my own water tested and determined that I needed maximum filtration. I purchased a Big Berkey water filter that sits on my kitchen island. Yes, it’s large and it takes up a lot of room. But, you can make even stagnant water with visible pond scum potable. Several third world countries use Berkey filtration in remote villages to make their polluted water safe to drink. The Berkey has been rigorously tested and removes many toxins including pharmaceuticals from your water. I don’t work for Berkey but I am happy to endorse them. I did my due diligence and nothing scrubs your water like their products do. And, unlike the highly effective reverse osmosis method of filtration, it doesn’t waste four gallons of water to make one gallon of safe drinkable water.
If Berkey filters work so well at filtering out drugs, it calls to question why our sewage treatment plants are not using this type of filtration on a bigger scale to clean the water that flows from our tap. You may find this crazy (I did) but you may just accept it for what it is.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who should be safeguarding our water supply, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who regulate the pharmaceutical industry do not collaborate. If they worked together, we might have a chance at preventing our water supply from being contaminated by drugs. But, until that time, you need to do your own research on your drinking water to protect yourself and your family.