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What's in Your Water?

Water, water everywhere…but is it safe to drink?
With bottled water costing well over a buck at the convenience store, budget-conscious folks have been switching to tap water. After all, the argument goes, tap water goes through filtration, too, and has the added benefit of fluoride. News stories blamed the rise in kids' cavities on a switch to bottled water. Surely it made more sense to stick with tap water. Now we find out that tap water and perhaps bottled water contain traces of prescription medications, causing people to reconsider their daily water source.

How do the medications get in the water?
For years, drug manufacturers have been advising consumers to flush leftover and outdated medications down the toilet. But this is only one source of contamination. Medications taken into the body do not completely break down. Traces of active drugs are left in bodily waste which is flushed down the toilet and back into the water supply. While water treatment plants routinely check for odor and bacteria, they do not test for drug residue.

Is there a risk to humans?
Although the report from the Associated Press brought it to the front of the news this month, we've known for quite a while that drug contamination of drinking water was an issue. A 2002 news release from Johns Hopkins entitled "Prescription Drug Pollution May Harm Humans, Aquatic Life" marked the beginning of a three-year study addressing this, and scientists around the world have been conducting research.

The AP report found traces of antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones in water sources drunk by more than 41 million Americans. The amounts are tiny, but scientists still worry about what continuous exposure might do to citizens' health. The lurking problem is that as of now these types of contaminants are not tested for or removed in bottled water plants, public water treatment facilities, or with most home water filtering systems.

How serious is the risk?

"Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation."

Yet there are no standards for testing water, bottled or tap, for pharmaceuticals. Standard home filtration systems do not eliminate them, either. A water filtration process called reverse osmosis seems to be promising for removing pharmaceuticals from drinking water. It is available from several vendors, including Everpure, Culligan, APEC, and Kinetico.

If you use prescription drugs, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy has issued guidelines for their disposal. These guidelines will not keep the drugs out of the water supply, but they are the safest recommended practices for now. If you still have questions, your regional Environmental Protection Agency office may be able to assist you.

Resources to Check Out from the Library:

The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink by Robert D. Morris
Environmental epidemiologist Morris chronicles the at times frightening story of our drinking water. He recounts the epidemics that have shaken cities and nations, the scientists who reached into the invisible and emerged with controversial truths that would save millions of lives, and the economic and political forces that opposed these researchers in a ferocious war of ideas. Morris dispels notions of fail-safe water systems, revealing some shocking truths: miles of leaking water mains, constantly evolving microorganisms, and the looming threat of bioterrorism.
(From the publisher's description)

 

Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water by Peter Ball
In this fresh exploration, a consulting editor for "Nature" tells of water's origins, its history, and its fascinating pervasiveness. Finally, Ball laments about the future of this natural resource, predicting that it will become a scarce commodity this century.
(Publisher's description)

On the Web:

Bottled Water: Better Than Tap?
www.fda.gov/FDAC/features/2002/402_h2o.html
Lays out the differences between different kinds of bottled water and tap water.

Drinking Water Contaminants
www.epa.gov/safewater/hfacts.html
This fact sheet from the FDA talks about contaminants and their possible effects on humans. Part of their SafeWater section which contains a section on Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products.

ITG Subject: Reverse Osmosis
www.fda.gov/ora/inspect_ref/itg/itg36.html
A scientific look at the process for reverse osmosis.

"Pharmaceutical Stew Found to Slow Cell Growth"
www.northjersey.com/news/health/Pharmaceutical_stew_found_to_slow_cell_g... This Associated Press article examines the results of research performed by poisons expert and biologist Francesco Pomati.

"Prescription Drug Pollution May Harm Humans, Aquatic Life"
www.jhu.edu/news_info/news/home02/apr02/prescrip.html
The background behind the Johns Hopkins study

"U.S. Drinking Water Tainted by Drugs"
www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/03/10/pharma.water1.ap/index.html
This 2008 AP article gives an overview of recent findings on water contamination throughout the United States.

"Side Effects" in Chemical & Engineering News
pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/86/8608cover.html Disturbing results of scientists' testing for environmental effects of pharmaceutical residues on aquatic life