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7 Scary Facts About Pharmaceutical Pollution of Drinking Water

Very little attention is likely to be paid to a report by the General Accountability Office that says most drinking water in the U.S. is contaminated with pharmaceuticals, and most of those drugs are estrogen-based hormones and antibiotics.

The report is an important one because in essence it says that although the drug industry is poisoning the U.S. water supply no one knows how bad the problem is or what the solution might be. This, in fact, is the key reason the nonpartisan report will get very few headlines: The lack of information is, in itself, the heart of the problem.

Here are some scary facts from the report, most of which remain unaddressed by the federal government, state governments or the industry itself.

Begin: Seven scary facts about drug contamination of drinking water.

1. The full extent of the problem is unknown

The GAO knows how drinking water becomes contaminated, but not how badly. This graphic (click to enlarge) shows that for every drinking water treatment plant there are six potential sources of pharma contamination: Drug factories, municipal sewers, hospitals, wastewater treatment plants, farm runoff and rural septic systems.

Next: Your water is definitely contaminated.

2. Most U.S. drinking water is contaminated with pharmaceuticals
Testing for drugs in water is patchy and inconsistent. Of the tests that have been done, the GAO says, most show contamination:

  • The U.S. Geological Survey found that 53 of 74 testing locations had one or more pharmaceuticals in the water.
  • A 2008 study funded by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation and the WateReuse Foundation tested 19 drinking water treatment plants across the United States. The study found pharmaceuticals and metabolites at all of the locations tested. These plants provide drinking water for over 28 million Americans.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency funded a 2010 analysis of 48 research publications and found that 54 active pharmaceutical ingredients and 10 metabolites have been detected in treated drinking water.
Next: On the pill, whether you like it or not.

3. Most of the contamination is from hormones
Of the 12 pharma chemicals that show up most in contaminated drinking water, eight are estrogenic hormones, a ninth is another hormone, progesterone, and 10th is the antibiotic erythromycin (click to enlarge):

We're literally drinking gallons of diluted hormones and antibiotics.

Next: Nicotine and vet drugs.

4. Smokers and farmers are among the worst culprits

It's not just contraceptives, prescription drugs and antibiotics that are the problem: Nicotine-laced urine from smokers and antibiotics in the urine of farm animals also make their way into the drinking water supply. Chickens, cattle, and pigs are treated with pharmaceuticals, which enter the environment from waste storage, from accidents or through manure and liquid waste spread on crops.

The "good" news: concentrations for any one pharmaceutical are measured most frequently in parts per trillion (click to enlarge):

Next: Contamination is common.

5. Many drinking water sites tested show pharma contamination
A 2005 study by the U.S. Geographical Survey and the EPA found:

  • 40 percent of water contaminated with nonprescription pharmaceuticals
  • 30 percent of water contaminated with nonantibiotic prescription pharmaceuticals.
  • 10 percent of water contaminated with antibiotics.
Next: You don't want to know the consequences.

6. Gentlemen, cross your legs.

It is not known what the effect of all the hormones in the water may be having on humans. However, the GAO says:

According to a 2004 research study, fish exposed to effluent from a cattle feedlot in Nebraska experienced reproductive abnormalities, including reduced testes size in male fish and a lower level of estrogen in female fish. The study reported the use of androgens in growth implants in the feedlot as one possible cause of the abnormalities.
The effect of endocrine disrupting chemicals on animal reproductive organs is well-established:
A 2007 study reported that 75 percent of male smallmouth bass in certain areas of the South Branch of the Potomac River basin had ovarian tissue in their gonads. The study concluded that a combination of EDCs was likely to have caused the feminization of the male fish.
Next: The government is doing almost nothing about it.

7. Most states are doing absolutely nothing about it

Although Sweden and Australia have national "take-back" programs in which consumers are encouraged or required to return unused medicines to authorities for safe disposal, only five U.S. states -- Utah, Washington, California, Texas and Maine -- have operated similar programs (click to enlarge).


Images by Joe Shlabotnik, Eden Pictures, Gnarls Monkey, Ed Yourdon, Rob Boudon, CC.
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