News that traces of drugs are found in tap water consumed by millions of Americans should awaken citizens and public officials. Precious water resources must be guarded and pharmaceuticals treated as hazardous waste.
Investigative reporters at the Associated Press have established that the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans from coast to coast is tainted by pharmaceuticals, albeit in minute levels far below those taken as prescriptions.
They include a medicine cabinet full of various drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, from pain medications to antidepressants to steroids. Some 56 kinds of drugs were identified in the water supply of Philadelphia alone. But the report says smaller towns and even rural areas may be affected, too. And that bottled water you're sipping? It probably wasn't tested for drug traces either.
The news report spotlights a troubling and growing form of pollution. As the series points out, the number of prescriptions written in the US rose to 3.7 billion in 2006, a 12 percent increase over five years earlier. Nonprescription drugs account for another 3.3 billion annual purchases.
While a portion of the problem comes from improper disposal of unused drugs, the majority is the result of drugs that are taken and excreted into wastewater systems. They make their way into groundwater and eventually into reservoirs. Nearly all forms of conventional water treatment, except the expensive process called reverse osmosis, fail to completely remove the drugs, the report says.
An added problem: Some of the drugs are likely to have come from animal sources, either farm animals or household pets, both of which are being given pharmaceuticals in growing amounts.
Studies have shown these drugs are present in wildlife, from fish to earthworms. The effects are unknown: The US government hasn't established any safety limits nor does it mandate testing for them.
Certainly more local water districts will need to test for the presence of drugs. Of 62 major districts contacted by AP, 34 do not test. And the Environmental Protection Agency should be more aggressive in studying the problem and possible impact. What might be the long-term effects? Could certain drugs combine with each other or with chlorine, frequently used in treating water supplies, to form toxic compounds?
The era of flushing nonconsumed prescription drugs down the toilet is over. Dropping drugs in the trash risks them being fished out by others and abused. That's why federal and state officials urge crushing and mixing pills with coffee grounds or cat litter to prevent misuse.
Even then, drugs sitting in landfills leave some risk of escaping into groundwater.
Better yet would be programs to return unused drugs to the drugstore or other vendors where they were purchased for proper disposal, or for cities and towns to include them in hazardous waste drop-off programs.
The problem of consumed drugs is more difficult. The ongoing discussion over whether Americans are being overmedicated perhaps has gained a new talking point.
If Americans don't want to breathe someone else's cigarette smoke, do they really want to swallow someone else's drugs – even in small amounts?