An investigation by the Associated Press found alarming levels of both prescription and over-the-counter medications in the drinking water of cities across the United States. These included everything from acetaminophen (the drug commonly found in Tylenol), to hormones, cardiac and asthma medicines, mood stabilizers and even antibiotics, all of which can have serious side effects. There is currently no scientific data to say what additional effects a random cocktail of these drugs may have on humans, or what long-term exposure to these drugs, even in small, diluted amounts, may do. Compounding the problem, the federal government does not currently require testing for pharmaceuticals in drinking water and has not determined what level of exposure may be safe.
Typically, pharmaceuticals enter the water system through household waste. Every time we toss unused pills in the trash or flush them down the toilet, we contribute to the contamination of drinking water by releasing these compounds into the environment. Pharmaceuticals can also be excreted by patients whose bodies pass small amounts of the drugs or their metabolites after ingestion. These chemicals then enter the sewage system, eventually finding their way to water treatments plants, most of which are unable to filter out the small molecules. From here, the "clean" water, which still contains the pharmaceutical compounds, is released back into the environment where it contaminates whole watersheds, including the rivers, lakes and aquifers that provide our drinking water.
And the problem is not confined to urban areas. Leaky septic systems can allow pharmaceuticals to leach out, contaminating groundwater. The drugs given to farm animals, including antibiotics and hormones, pass through their bodies the same way that pharmaceuticals pass through ours. Small amounts of the drugs are excreted in their waste which then enters watersheds through run-off.
These drugs don't just pose a danger to humans; animals are also susceptible. According to the Associated Press, water samples taken near a Nebraska feedlot showed elevated steroid levels, likely from the waste of cattle held there. Many of the male flathead minnows living downstream from the lot had malformed heads and low testosterone levels, a problem associated with steroid exposure.
Mary Buzby, of the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Inc., was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: "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."
So what can we do to ensure safe, clean water? The first thing we can do is to dispose of expired or unwanted medications correctly. The State of Illinois offers medication disposal facilities
in several counties. If there's not one near you, ask your doctor or pharmacists for a safe disposal area near your home. Second, make sure that your home sewage system is updated and working correctly. Leaky septic tanks are hazardous to you and your environment. Third, let your elected officials know that you want regulation of pharmaceuticals in drinking water. Ask for new technologies in waste treatment to be implemented in your hometown. These small changes can add up to big differences in the safety and quality of our water.