Reactions mixed over drugs in drinking water

April 1, 2008
A Series of recent stories by the Associated Press revealing the presence of pharmaceuticals in portions of the nation's drinking water supplies has some observers warning the public to take precautions but not to overreact.

A Series of recent stories by the Associated Press revealing the presence of pharmaceuticals in portions of the nation's drinking water supplies has some observers warning the public to take precautions but not to overreact.

The five-month-long investigation by the news agency discovered that many communities do not test for the presence of drugs in drinking water, and those that do often fail to tell customers that they have found trace amounts of medications.

Kylah Hedding, public affairs manager for the American Water Works Association, said one reason communities may have failed to tell consumers is that utilities didn't feel there was a risk to the public.

“If any utility felt that there was a danger to public health, then they would have released whatever information they needed to,” she said.

Hedding added that her association encourages ongoing tests of drinking water supplies.

“It's better to know what's in your water,” she said “Treating water is a very complex process. Changing even one little part of the way you treat your water can have effects on other things. The more that any water utility knows about what's in the water, the more effective they can be at treatment.”

The American Water Works Association has researched the issue of pharmaceuticals in America's drinking for a number of years and has only found trace levels of the substances, measured in parts per trillion, Hedding said.

“When we did the math, a part per trillion was like a teaspoon of salt in a thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools,” she said. “They're very small amounts. There have been no human health effects that have been found, and the water community is always paying close attention to that sort of research and doing research on our own as well.”

Joseph Harrison, technical director for the Water Quality Association, is not quite as confident that consistent levels of pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies have zero effect.

“I don't think we know factually how much real risk there is, but perception-wise, I think we should be really concerned. Who wants to be consuming those kinds of things?” he said.

Harrison suggested consumers avoid disposing of unused medications down the toilet. However, he doubted whether steps to completely stop medications from ending up in drinking water supplies would ever be fully successful.

“You can prevent people from taking their unused pills and flushing them down the toilet, but you're not going to prevent people who are taking medicines from having unmetabolized portions of those medications end up in the waste stream,” he said.

The Water Quality Association recommends the use of nano-filtration and reverse osmosis systems, which it says have proven effective in removing some pharmaceuticals.

“Reverse osmosis is one of the very popular things for under-the-sink treatment of people's drinking or cooking water,” Harrison said. “I feel confident that you would get a lot of (pharmaceuticals) out with RO, but I can't say that you would get 100% of everything out.”

Activated carbon, distillation, ozonation and advanced oxidization likewise have shown promise in removing many such contaminants, according to the association.

Harrison said the cost for these systems can range anywhere from $200 to $800 depending on how complex they are. He added that the Water Quality Association is working with other groups to establish standards for such products and to precisely determine their ability to remove pharmaceuticals from drinking water.

“I don't know how successful we can be, but we want to have accredited certification standards by independent third parties so consumers really know that the products can do what the manufacturers say,” he said.

Hedding said her association remains skeptical as to whether standard water filters can remove trace amounts of pharmaceuticals.

“The only thing that we could say to consumers is that buying a standard water filter may not necessarily be the answer,” she said. “If someone's thinking about filtering their water, our advice has always been, make sure it's getting out the substances that you're concerned about. I'm not sure that any water filter would be able to make that claim at this moment.”

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