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Pharmacuticals found in U.S. Drinking Water
Pharmacuticals found in U.S. Drinking Water
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A vast array of pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics,
anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones -- have
been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41
million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.
Officials in Philadelphia say testing there discovered 56
pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water.
To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals
are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or
trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also,
utilities insist their water is safe.
But the presence of so many prescription drugs -- and
over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen
-- in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries
among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.
In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered
that drugs have been detected in the drinking water
supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas -- from Southern
California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit, Michigan,
to Louisville, Kentucky. Map: See the cities where drugs
were found in drinking water.
Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical
screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the
head of a group representing major California suppliers
said the public "doesn't know how to interpret the
information" and might be unduly alarmed.
How do the drugs get into the water?
People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the
medication, but the rest of it passes through and is
flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before
it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then,
some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water
treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most
treatments do not remove all drug residue.
And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks
from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations
of low levels of pharmaceuticals, recent studies -- which
have gone virtually unnoticed by the general public -- have
found alarming effects on human cells and wildlife.
A 'growing concern'
"We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it
very seriously," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant
administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental
Members of the AP National Investigative Team reviewed
hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking
water databases, visited environmental study sites and
treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 officials,
academics and scientists. Watch more about what's in our
drinking water »
They also surveyed the nation's 50 largest cities and a
dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller
community water providers in all 50 states.
Here are some of the key test results obtained by the AP:
• Officials in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said testing
there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in
treated drinking water, including medicines for pain,
infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental
illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or
byproducts were found in the city's watersheds.
• Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected
in a portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million
people in Southern California.
• Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a
Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment
plant, which serves 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey,
and found a metabolized angina medicine and the
mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking water.
• A sex hormone was detected in the drinking water of San
• The drinking water for Washington, D.C., and surrounding
areas tested positive for six pharmaceuticals.
The situation is undoubtedly worse than suggested by the
positive test results in the major population centers
documented by the AP.
Testing not required
The federal government doesn't require any testing and
hasn't set safety limits for drugs in water.
Of the 62 major water providers contacted, the drinking
water for only 28 was tested. Among the 34 that haven't:
Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Florida;
Baltimore, Maryland; Phoenix, Arizona; Boston,
Massachusetts; and New York City's Department of
Environmental Protection, which delivers water to 9 million
Some providers screen for only one or two pharmaceuticals,
leaving open the possibility that others are present.
The AP's investigation also indicates that watersheds, the
natural sources of most of the nation's water supply, also
are contaminated. Tests were conducted in the watersheds of
35 of the 62 major providers surveyed by the AP, and
pharmaceuticals were detected in 28.
Yet officials in six of those 28 metropolitan areas said
they did not go on to test their drinking water -- Fairfax,
Virginia; Montgomery County in Maryland; Omaha, Nebraska;
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Santa Clara, California; and New
The New York state health department and the USGS tested
the source of the city's water, upstate. They found trace
concentrations of heart medicine, infection fighters,
estrogen, anti-convulsants, a mood stabilizer and a
City water officials declined repeated requests for an
interview. In a statement, they insisted that "New York
City's drinking water continues to meet all federal and
state regulations regarding drinking water quality in the
watershed and the distribution system" -- regulations that
do not address trace pharmaceuticals.
In several cases, officials at municipal or regional water
providers told the AP that pharmaceuticals had not been
detected, but the AP obtained the results of tests
conducted by independent researchers that showed otherwise.
Of the 28 major metropolitan areas where tests were
performed on drinking water supplies, only Albuquerque, New
Mexico; Austin, Texas; and Virginia Beach, Virginia, said
tests were negative. The drinking water in Dallas, Texas,
has been tested, but officials are awaiting results.
Arlington, Texas, acknowledged that traces of a
pharmaceutical were detected in its drinking water but
cited post-9/11 security concerns in refusing to identify
The AP also contacted 52 small water providers -- one in
each state, and two each in Missouri and Texas -- that
serve communities with populations around 25,000. All but
one said their drinking water had not been screened for
pharmaceuticals; officials in Emporia, Kansas, refused to
answer AP's questions, also citing post-9/11 issues.
Rural, bottled water also unchecked
Rural consumers who draw water from their own wells aren't
in the clear either, experts say.
Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems
don't necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which
simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test
for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade
group. The same goes for the makers of home filtration
In the United States, the problem isn't confined to surface
waters. Pharmaceuticals also permeate aquifers deep
underground, the source of 40 percent of the nation's water
supply. Federal scientists who drew water in 24 states from
aquifers near contaminant sources such as landfills and
animal feed lots found minuscule levels of hormones,
antibiotics and other drugs.
Perhaps it's because Americans have been taking drugs --
and flushing them unmetabolized or unused -- in growing
amounts. Over the past five years, the number of U.S. drug
prescriptions rose 12 percent to a record 3.7 billion,
while nonprescription drug purchases held steady around 3.3
billion, according to IMS Health and The Nielsen Co.
Medications not all absorbed.
"People think that if they take a medication, their body
absorbs it and it disappears, but of course that's not the
case," said EPA scientist Christian Daughton, one of the
first to draw attention to the issue of pharmaceuticals in
water in the United States.
Some drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters,
tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern
drinking water and wastewater treatment processes. Plus,
the EPA says there are no sewage treatment systems
specifically engineered to remove pharmaceuticals.
Veterinary drugs also play a role. Pets are now treated for
a wide range of ailments -- sometimes with the same drugs
as humans. The inflation-adjusted value of veterinary drugs
rose by 8 percent, to $5.2 billion, over the past five
years, according to an analysis of data from the Animal
Ask the pharmaceutical industry whether the contamination
of water supplies is a problem, and officials will tell you
"Based on what we now know, I would say we find there's
little or no risk from pharmaceuticals in the environment
to human health," said microbiologist Thomas White, a
consultant for the Pharmaceutical Research and
Manufacturers of America.
But at a conference last summer, Mary Buzby -- director of
environmental technology for drug maker Merck & Co. Inc. --
said: "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
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