Drugs in Drinking Water Throughout U.S., Studies Say

A broad range of prescription drugs has been found in drinking water all over the United States, new studies have found. The drugs found constitute a mind-boggling pharmacopoeia that give a clue to the conditions facing modern society: anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs, antibiotics, anti-convulsants, heart medications, sex hormones, painkillers, and the mood-stabilizing drug carbamazepine, as well as over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen.

The Associated Press study found prescription drugs in the water supplies of 24 states, and they say that at least 41 million Americans are exposed to these drugs. In addition, traces of sedatives and more than 15 other drugs or their by-products have been found in New York City’s drinking water.

The upstate New York sources of NYC’s drinking water have been found to include drugs such as “the heart medicine atenolol; anti-seizure drugs carbamazepine and primidone; relaxers diazepam and carisoprodol; infection fighters trimethoprim, clindamycin, and sulfamethoxazole; pain relievers ibuprofen, acetaminophen and codeine,” and cotinine, a by-product of nicotine metabolism. Cotinine is the substance that shows up in urine when a person is tested for use of or exposure to nicotine.

While the concentrations of these drugs is very small, and the water utilities insist that their water is safe, scientists caution that combinations of certain drugs, even at low levels, can have an adverse impact on wildlife and on human body cells.

This problem is actually not new; back in 2000 an article in Science News noted that pharmaceuticals were found in many European lakes and rivers, and that the problem was also occurring in the U.S.

Of course, humans aren’t the only source of the drugs in drinking water: livestock are fed an array of hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals to ward off disease and fatten them up, and these make it into the water supply.

Adding to the problem is that it may not be possible to get these chemicals out of drinking water. When people take medications, their bodies absorb some of the drug and the rest is excreted, and ends up in the sewage system and eventually into the water supply. Current water-treatment techniques may not be able to eliminate these substances from water.

Think you’re OK if you drink bottled water? Not really… most big bottle water producers use ordinary municipal water supplies, often without treating or even testing it.

The AP article notes that over the last five years “the number of U.S. drug prescriptions rose 12 percent to a record 3.7 billion.”

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