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

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.

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