Antibiotics, hormones, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers & tranquilizers, typical contents of a locked hospital supply room. It may also be the contents of your drinking water. It’s also likely it contains insecticides, detergents, artificial sweeteners fire retardants, plasticizers and triclosan. All in very small amounts, but nevertheless there. Today I want to focus on pharmaceuticals.
Numerous studies have been done to assess the quality of our drinking water. In recent years many of these studies have focused on pharmaceuticals. An Associated Press investigation in 2008 determined pharmaceuticals such as these have been found in the drinking water supply of at least 41 million Americans. The US Geological service has identified pharmaceuticals in 80% of the country’s rivers and streams. Similar findings have been reported in Canada, Japan, Great Britain, the list goes on.
How does this happen? We are using more and more medications and naturally the waste is excreted and goes into the water system. Up until recently, people were advised to dispose of all unused medication by flushing it down the toilet; now it’s only recommended for more dangerous medications that need to be disposed of quickly and “permanently”. Some medications are resistant to treatment in our waste water plants & many old septic systems leak the waste. They’re treated in a waste water plant or a septic system, and the remnants are released into the local stream and aquifer, where the water is pulled back up for us to drink. Some pharmaceuticals are even made more toxic when combined with chlorine.
Many bottled water companies don’t test for pharmaceuticals or purify the water before bottling, so that’s another possible source. Are there cattle grazing in the local stream? Many are being treated with steroids or antibiotics. The stream is connected to an aquifer that’s connected to a water supply. You get the picture.
Naturally the water downstream of hospitals, retirement facilities and nursing homes has been found to have a particularly high level of pharmaceuticals. Aquatic life is already being affected by the contaminants in our water, and as drought conditions become more common, the contaminants become concentrated.
Frogs develop deformities at relatively low levels of contamination, and they are being affected; in Colorado’s Boulder Creek studies by the University of Colorado at Boulder found that 50 percent of the male white suckers have developed female sex tissue, and the female fish outnumber the males more than five to one. Evidence suggests this is because of the estrogen and other chemicals causing esogenic (hormone mimicing) effects in the water.
What can we do? First of all - don’t make it a habit to drink unfiltered water.
Don’t flush unused medication down the toilet. You can contact the manufacturer or your pharmacist to find a local take back program. Some doctor’s offices have a receptacle to take your expired and unused medication. Your local or county health department or police station may have a disposal site or a collection day. If none of these options pan out for you, you can dispose of pills and tablets in the garbage if your garbage goes to an incinerator, liquids can be disposed after pouring them in a plastic bag with absorbent kitty litter or sand. This is clearly not a great option, but the best we have.
Support efforts to make pharmaceuticals that degrade quicker, currently in the early stages of research.
The best solution is to combine all of these efforts with more effective technologies at our waste water plants, but the cost to make them effective is currently prohibitive for most communities. So stay tuned as the environmental and health communities continue to search for viable solutions.
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