Thanks to the chemical, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and antiquated water systems, Americans are drinking a concoction of medications, antibiotics and toxic chemicals, often without realizing it.
Contaminants enter the water supply via human drug waste in sewage, medicines flushed down toilets, agricultural runoff and the wide use of pesticides, flame retardants and plastic-related compounds like phthalates and BPA. (BPA has ironically been used in bottled water that people drink to avoid tap water risks!)
Strides have been made in making our plastic less toxic (oxymoron?), as well as other materials. You can often find BPA-free canned vegetables, for instance. But these less toxic options aren't available in all areas or towns.
Referring to pharmaceuticals in our water, the drug industry and water treatment professionals say the trace levels are so minuscule they likely pose no risk to public health. But at the same time they admit there is a problem that could affect our health. It is already affecting wildlife and fish that rely on rivers and waterways containing our discarded drugs.
"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 aquatic organisms," noted Mary Buzby, director of environmental technology for Merck.
Learn more about this issue, and ways to help, in an illuminating article by Scientific American .
External Medicine: Discarded Drugs May Contaminate 40 Million Americans' Drinking Water
Although millions of people flush unused medications down the toilet and discharge them in bodily waste, sewage treatment plants and septic systems are not required to deal with such contaminants
Dear EarthTalk: Pharmaceuticals were in the news again recently, how they are polluting water and raising a host of health issues because we dispose of them both unused and used through bodily waste elimination. What can be done?—Lucy Abbot, Macon, Ga.
Pharmaceutical drug contamination in our groundwater, rivers, lakes, estuaries and bays is a growing problem. Millions of us are flushing unused medications down the toilet and discharging them in our body waste—even though sewage treatment plants and septic systems were never designed to deal with such contaminants. Additional discharges by healthcare facilities exacerbate the problem. As a result, researchers have identified traces of pharmaceutical drugs in the drinking water supplies of some 40 million Americans.
A nationwide study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 and 2000 found low levels of pharmaceuticals—including antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids—in 80 percent of the rivers and streams sampled. According to Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), the effects of constant, low-level exposure of pharmaceuticals on ecosystems and humans are uncertain, though “possible health concerns include hormone disruption, antibiotic resistance and synergistic effects.” And antidepressants, says CCE, can “alter the behavior and reproductive functions of fish and mollusks.”
CCE cites a recent Stony Brook University study showing that some fish species in New York’s Jamaica Bay are experiencing “feminization”—the ratio of female to male winter flounder was 10 to one in the studied area—likely a result of flushed pharmaceuticals that can act as “hormone mimics” and cause such effects. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation concurs, citing a number of other studies underscoring the impacts on aquatic life. What irks CCE about the problem is that almost all known sources of drugs in the environment first pass through wastewater treatment plants where they could be filtered out, but these facilities are not required to be equipped with pharmaceutical filter devices.
In light of the problem, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 2007 established its first set of guidelines for how consumers should dispose of prescription drugs. First and foremost, consumers should follow any specific disposal instructions on a drug’s label or the patient information that accompanies the medication—and shouldn’t flush the drugs down the toilet. If there are no disposal instructions, the FDA recommends finding out from your municipality if any take-back programs are in place. Also, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Days across the country at various sites a few times a year.
“If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter,” says the FDA. This will make them less appealing to children, pets or people who may intentionally go through your trash, says the agency, which adds that a final step is to put the medication into a sealed bag or other container to prevent leaks.
CONTACTS: CCE, www.citizenscampaign.org; National Prescription Drug Take Back Days, www.nationaltakebackday.com; FDA’s “How to Dispose of Unused Medicines,” www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm107163.pdf.
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