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AP probe finds drugs in drinking water

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 14, 2008
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      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist


      AP probe finds drugs in drinking water
      Sun Mar 9, 2008

      A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-
      convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in
      the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an
      Associated Press investigation shows.

      To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny,
      measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below
      the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is

      But the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-
      counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of
      our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-
      term consequences to human health.

      In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs
      have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major
      metropolitan areas — from Southern California to Northern New
      Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky.

      Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical
      screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a
      group representing major California suppliers said the
      public "doesn't know how to interpret the information" and might be
      unduly alarmed.

      How do the drugs get into the water?

      People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but
      the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The
      wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs,
      rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at
      drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most
      treatments do not remove all drug residue.

      And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from
      decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels
      of pharmaceuticals, recent studies — which have gone virtually
      unnoticed by the general public — have found alarming effects on
      human cells and wildlife.

      "We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very
      seriously," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for
      water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

      Members of the AP National Investigative Team reviewed hundreds of
      scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases,
      visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and
      interviewed more than 230 officials, academics and scientists. They
      also surveyed the nation's 50 largest cities and a dozen other major
      water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all
      50 states.

      Here are some of the key test results obtained by the AP:

      _Officials in Philadelphia said testing there discovered 56
      pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including
      medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy,
      mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or
      byproducts were found in the city's watersheds.

      _Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a
      portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in
      Southern California.

      _Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a Passaic Valley
      Water Commission drinking water treatment plant, which serves
      850,000 people in Northern New Jersey, and found a metabolized
      angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking

      _A sex hormone was detected in San Francisco's drinking water.

      _The drinking water for Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas
      tested positive for six pharmaceuticals.

      _Three medications, including an antibiotic, were found in drinking
      water supplied to Tucson, Ariz.

      The situation is undoubtedly worse than suggested by the positive
      test results in the major population centers documented by the AP.

      The federal government doesn't require any testing and hasn't set
      safety limits for drugs in water. Of the 62 major water providers
      contacted, the drinking water for only 28 was tested. Among the 34
      that haven't: Houston, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Phoenix, Boston
      and New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, which
      delivers water to 9 million people.

      Some providers screen only for one or two pharmaceuticals, leaving
      open the possibility that others are present.

      The AP's investigation also indicates that watersheds, the natural
      sources of most of the nation's water supply, also are contaminated.
      Tests were conducted in the watersheds of 35 of the 62 major
      providers surveyed by the AP, and pharmaceuticals were detected in

      Yet officials in six of those 28 metropolitan areas said they did
      not go on to test their drinking water — Fairfax, Va.; Montgomery
      County in Maryland; Omaha, Neb.; Oklahoma City; Santa Clara, Calif.,
      and New York City.

      The New York state health department and the USGS tested the source
      of the city's water, upstate. They found trace concentrations of
      heart medicine, infection fighters, estrogen, anti-convulsants, a
      mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer.

      City water officials declined repeated requests for an interview. In
      a statement, they insisted that "New York City's drinking water
      continues to meet all federal and state regulations regarding
      drinking water quality in the watershed and the distribution
      system" — regulations that do not address trace pharmaceuticals.

      In several cases, officials at municipal or regional water providers
      told the AP that pharmaceuticals had not been detected, but the AP
      obtained the results of tests conducted by independent researchers
      that showed otherwise. For example, water department officials in
      New Orleans said their water had not been tested for
      pharmaceuticals, but a Tulane University researcher and his students
      have published a study that found the pain reliever naproxen, the
      sex hormone estrone and the anti-cholesterol drug byproduct
      clofibric acid in treated drinking water.

      Of the 28 major metropolitan areas where tests were performed on
      drinking water supplies, only Albuquerque; Austin, Texas; and
      Virginia Beach, Va.; said tests were negative. The drinking water in
      Dallas has been tested, but officials are awaiting results.
      Arlington, Texas, acknowledged that traces of a pharmaceutical were
      detected in its drinking water but cited post-9/11 security concerns
      in refusing to identify the drug.

      The AP also contacted 52 small water providers — one in each state,
      and two each in Missouri and Texas — that serve communities with
      populations around 25,000. All but one said their drinking water had
      not been screened for pharmaceuticals; officials in Emporia, Kan.,
      refused to answer AP's questions, also citing post-9/11 issues.

      Rural consumers who draw water from their own wells aren't in the
      clear either, experts say.

      The Stroud Water Research Center, in Avondale, Pa., has measured
      water samples from New York City's upstate watershed for caffeine, a
      common contaminant that scientists often look for as a possible
      signal for the presence of other pharmaceuticals. Though more
      caffeine was detected at suburban sites, researcher Anthony
      Aufdenkampe was struck by the relatively high levels even in less
      populated areas.

      He suspects it escapes from failed septic tanks, maybe with other
      drugs. "Septic systems are essentially small treatment plants that
      are essentially unmanaged and therefore tend to fail," Aufdenkampe

      Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don't
      necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage
      tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals,
      according to the industry's main trade group. The same goes for the
      makers of home filtration systems.

      Contamination is not confined to the United States. More than 100
      different pharmaceuticals have been detected in lakes, rivers,
      reservoirs and streams throughout the world. Studies have detected
      pharmaceuticals in waters throughout Asia, Australia, Canada and
      Europe — even in Swiss lakes and the North Sea.

      For example, in Canada, a study of 20 Ontario drinking water
      treatment plants by a national research institute found nine
      different drugs in water samples. Japanese health officials in
      December called for human health impact studies after detecting
      prescription drugs in drinking water at seven different sites.

      In the United States, the problem isn't confined to surface waters.
      Pharmaceuticals also permeate aquifers deep underground, source of
      40 percent of the nation's water supply. Federal scientists who drew
      water in 24 states from aquifers near contaminant sources such as
      landfills and animal feed lots found minuscule levels of hormones,
      antibiotics and other drugs.

      Perhaps it's because Americans have been taking drugs — and flushing
      them unmetabolized or unused — in growing amounts. Over the past
      five years, the number of U.S. prescriptions rose 12 percent to a
      record 3.7 billion, while nonprescription drug purchases held steady
      around 3.3 billion, according to IMS Health and The Nielsen Co.

      "People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs it
      and it disappears, but of course that's not the case," said EPA
      scientist Christian Daughton, one of the first to draw attention to
      the issue of pharmaceuticals in water in the United States.

      Some drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters,
      tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern drinking
      water and wastewater treatment processes. Plus, the EPA says there
      are no sewage treatment systems specifically engineered to remove

      One technology, reverse osmosis, removes virtually all
      pharmaceutical contaminants but is very expensive for large-scale
      use and leaves several gallons of polluted water for every one that
      is made drinkable.

      Another issue: There's evidence that adding chlorine, a common
      process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some
      pharmaceuticals more toxic.

      Human waste isn't the only source of contamination. Cattle, for
      example, are given ear implants that provide a slow release of
      trenbolone, an anabolic steroid used by some bodybuilders, which
      causes cattle to bulk up. But not all the trenbolone circulating in
      a steer is metabolized. A German study showed 10 percent of the
      steroid passed right through the animals.

      Water sampled downstream of a Nebraska feedlot had steroid levels
      four times as high as the water taken upstream. Male fathead minnows
      living in that downstream area had low testosterone levels and small

      Other veterinary drugs also play a role. Pets are now treated for
      arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, dementia, and
      even obesity — sometimes with the same drugs as humans. The
      inflation-adjusted value of veterinary drugs rose by 8 percent, to
      $5.2 billion, over the past five years, according to an analysis of
      data from the Animal Health Institute.

      Ask the pharmaceutical industry whether the contamination of water
      supplies is a problem, and officials will tell you no. "Based on
      what we now know, I would say we find there's little or no risk from
      pharmaceuticals in the environment to human health," said
      microbiologist Thomas White, a consultant for the Pharmaceutical
      Research and Manufacturers of America.

      But at a conference last summer, Mary Buzby — director of
      environmental technology for drug maker Merck & Co. Inc. —
      said: "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."

      Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of
      medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood
      cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated
      too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells
      showed biological activity associated with inflammation.

      Also, pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the
      nation and around the globe, research shows. Notably, male fish are
      being feminized, creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually
      restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel
      species at the foundation of the pyramid of life — such as earth
      worms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory, studies show.

      Some scientists stress that the research is extremely limited, and
      there are too many unknowns. They say, though, that the documented
      health problems in wildlife are disconcerting.

      "It brings a question to people's minds that if the fish were
      affected ... might there be a potential problem for humans?" EPA
      research biologist Vickie Wilson told the AP. "It could be that the
      fish are just exquisitely sensitive because of their physiology or
      something. We haven't gotten far enough along."

      With limited research funds, said Shane Snyder, research and
      development project manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority,
      a greater emphasis should be put on studying the effects of drugs in

      "I think it's a shame that so much money is going into monitoring to
      figure out if these things are out there, and so little is being
      spent on human health," said Snyder. "They need to just accept that
      these things are everywhere — every chemical and pharmaceutical
      could be there. It's time for the EPA to step up to the plate and
      make a statement about the need to study effects, both human and

      To the degree that the EPA is focused on the issue, it appears to be
      looking at detection. Grumbles acknowledged that just late last year
      the agency developed three new methods to "detect and quantify
      pharmaceuticals" in wastewater. "We realize that we have a limited
      amount of data on the concentrations," he said. "We're going to be
      able to learn a lot more."

      While Grumbles said the EPA had analyzed 287 pharmaceuticals for
      possible inclusion on a draft list of candidates for regulation
      under the Safe Drinking Water Act, he said only one, nitroglycerin,
      was on the list. Nitroglycerin can be used as a drug for heart
      problems, but the key reason it's being considered is its widespread
      use in making explosives.

      So much is unknown. Many independent scientists are skeptical that
      trace concentrations will ultimately prove to be harmful to humans.
      Confidence about human safety is based largely on studies that
      poison lab animals with much higher amounts.

      There's growing concern in the scientific community, meanwhile, that
      certain drugs — or combinations of drugs — may harm humans over
      decades because water, unlike most specific foods, is consumed in
      sizable amounts every day.

      Our bodies may shrug off a relatively big one-time dose, yet suffer
      from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a half century,
      perhaps subtly stirring allergies or nerve damage. Pregnant women,
      the elderly and the very ill might be more sensitive.

      Many concerns about chronic low-level exposure focus on certain drug
      classes: chemotherapy that can act as a powerful poison; hormones
      that can hamper reproduction or development; medicines for
      depression and epilepsy that can damage the brain or change
      behavior; antibiotics that can allow human germs to mutate into more
      dangerous forms; pain relievers and blood-pressure diuretics.

      For several decades, federal environmental officials and nonprofit
      watchdog environmental groups have focused on regulated
      contaminants — pesticides, lead, PCBs — which are present in higher
      concentrations and clearly pose a health risk.

      However, some experts say medications may pose a unique danger
      because, unlike most pollutants, they were crafted to act on the
      human body.

      "These are chemicals that are designed to have very specific effects
      at very low concentrations. That's what pharmaceuticals do. So when
      they get out to the environment, it should not be a shock to people
      that they have effects," says zoologist John Sumpter at Brunel
      University in London, who has studied trace hormones, heart medicine
      and other drugs.

      And while drugs are tested to be safe for humans, the timeframe is
      usually over a matter of months, not a lifetime. Pharmaceuticals
      also can produce side effects and interact with other drugs at
      normal medical doses. That's why — aside from therapeutic doses of
      fluoride injected into potable water supplies — pharmaceuticals are
      prescribed to people who need them, not delivered to everyone in
      their drinking water.

      "We know we are being exposed to other people's drugs through our
      drinking water, and that can't be good," says Dr. David Carpenter,
      who directs the Institute for Health and the Environment of the
      State University of New York at Albany.
      The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at
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