TOPICS > Health

Probe Finds Traces of Common Pharmaceuticals in U.S. Drinking Water

March 10, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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An investigation by the Associated Press found trace amounts of many types of pharmaceuticals -- including painkillers, antibiotics and anti-seizure medications -- in the drinking water of 24 American cities. A reporter who worked on the story describes the findings.
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RAY SUAREZ: A new investigation has found traces of pharmaceuticals Americans take have made their way into much of our nation’s drinking water.

The five-month investigation by the Associated Press has found tiny concentrations of pharmaceuticals or byproducts in drinking water in nearly half of the cities tested.

The traces were found in 24 major metropolitan areas around the country, from California to Detroit to northern New Jersey. That water is supplied to as many as 41 million Americans.

Among some of the drugs detected: mood-stabilizers, anti-convulsants, heart medicine, and birth control.

To tell us more, we’re joined by one of the story’s lead reporters, Jeff Donn of the Associated Press.

And, Jeff, you hear this formidable list of drugs and chemicals in the water. How do they get there?

JEFF DONN, Reporter, Associated Press: They get there from us. We take medicine, but our body only absorbs so much of it. The rest of it we excrete. It enters the waste stream.

There’s a whole another part that enters from the veterinary avenue. Animals are fed drugs on farms and elsewhere. There’s rain runoff. And that also — that residue also ends up in the waste stream.

And these two residues come together and create trace pharmaceuticals in the rivers and streams. And that eventually can pass, despite treatment systems, into the drinking water supplies of the country.

RAY SUAREZ: But you say this water enters the waste stream from people taking drugs. How come those trace chemicals are still in that water when it’s returned to reservoirs, lakes and rivers?

JEFF DONN: Some of them will eventually break down, but some pharmaceuticals are very persistent and they pass through waste water treatment systems, sewage treatment; they pass through drinking water treatment.

No treatment system is specifically designed to keep out these pharmaceutical traces. So some of them, not all of them, but some of them are able to eventually pass through these treatment systems and into the drinking water systems.

Tiny traces raise some concern

Jeff Donn
Associated Press
These are very small amounts [...] they wouldn't even have been detectable 10 or 15 years ago. The analytic chemistry that finds these traces has advanced to the point where now we can find them.

RAY SUAREZ: You talked about trace amounts. What kind of concentrations are we talking about? What kind of amounts inside a gallon or more of water is constituted by these chemicals?

JEFF DONN: These are very small amounts. They're orders of magnitude below medical doses that would have a medical effect on people.

And they wouldn't even have been detectable 10 or 15 years ago. The analytic chemistry that finds these traces has advanced to the point where now we can find them.

Despite how small they are, there's some concern among scientists that, over decades or over a lifetime, consuming these trace pharmaceuticals could carry some risk, possibly.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I saw that some of these were measured in one or two parts per billion, even parts per trillion. Give people an idea of what we're talking about as far as proportions.

JEFF DONN: That's right. These are very tiny amounts, maybe a teaspoon in three or four Olympic-sized swimming pools. So these are very small amounts.

But part of the reason we got interested in this project originally is that we realized that, unlike a lot of traditional pollutants, industrial pollutants, pesticides, pharmaceuticals are designed to interact with your body.

And so they pose some questions that some of the traditional pollutants with known risk don't pose as much.

Long-term risks?

Jeff Donn
Associated Press
We also were able to find an emerging body of scientific research that for the first time suggests that there might be some impact on people. It's the first hint, I would say, of scientific evidence.

RAY SUAREZ: How did you find out they were there? Do all big municipal systems test their water for these trace amounts of chemicals?

JEFF DONN: They don't. We surveyed 62 large metro areas, and 24 of them had detections of these pharmaceuticals. Three tested and did not find them; one is awaiting results. But the rest of them have not tested.

So in that sense, the problem is probably much more -- undoubtedly, I would say -- much more expansive than what we were able to document. But nobody has ever documented anything even of the extent that we were able to document in the drinking water supplies.

RAY SUAREZ: Is drinking water regulated? Are these things allowed to be in the water that comes out of your tap?

JEFF DONN: Of course, drinking water is regulated and rather heavily regulated, but pharmaceutical traces are not regulated. The water providers are not required to test for them. They're not required to remove them from the water stream.

RAY SUAREZ: So what, if anything, do we know about the effect of drinking water that contains these chemicals?

JEFF DONN: Well, there's a lot of questions about what the risk might be over a long period in people.

We also were able to find an emerging body of scientific research that for the first time suggests that there might be some impact on people. It's the first hint, I would say, of scientific evidence.

These are lab studies where cells, human cells are subjected to very slight amounts of pharmaceuticals, the kind that are found in water. And these experiments show that even these slight amounts appear to be capable of impairing the functioning of human cells.

No way for consumers to test water

Jeff Donn
Associated Press
We all need to drink, obviously. And in that sense, we're all in this together.

RAY SUAREZ: So if you hear this and you decide you don't want that in your water, is there anything you can do at home, one of those filtering systems, for instance?

JEFF DONN: Well, that's a good question, I think. I'm sure people are wondering that. We researched filtering systems and bottled water, as well. Both those industries told us that they essentially do not test for pharmaceuticals. They're not required to. They don't test for them.

As a lot of people know, a lot of bottled water is simply repackaged tap water. There's also research showing that even bottled water that comes from natural sources might not be completely free and clear of this problem, in the sense that some research shows that even underground aquifers can be tainted with -- can carry these pharmaceutical traces.

Filtration systems for the home are not designed to remove these pharmaceuticals, so they may remove some of them, so it's not as though people have an obvious alternative. We all need to drink, obviously. And in that sense, we're all in this together.

RAY SUAREZ: But if I understand you, there's not even any way of knowing or the people who make these products aren't required to tell you if a filter takes them out?

JEFF DONN: There's generally no way of knowing. That's true. And, in fact, if you wanted to call up your local water chemistry lab that does testing, say, for microbes and ask if they could test your water for pharmaceuticals, they might not be able to.

It's not something that's commonly done. In fact, we called a couple dozen labs around the New York metropolitan area, for example, and we could not find a single one that had ever been asked by a consumer to do that kind of testing, which to us means that it's not a problem that's recognized.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Donn of the Associated Press, thanks for being with us.

JEFF DONN: You're very welcome. Take care.