Drugs in Your Drinking Water

Since the title of this blog implies it is supposed to occasionally be about water issues, here's a deep one for ya. If you're looking for light banter you can quit reading now.

This morning while watching the news I heard a story about a "new" report that found trace amounts of many different types of pharmaceuticals in drinking water in many major cities around the country. The drugs included antibiotics, anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen and the like), mood elevators, and sex hormones from birth control, etc. This story was repeated several times in a way that was designed to be shocking to people. How did these drugs end up in drinking water? Simple, the went through people's bodies, got flushed down the toilet, and went through the wastewater treatment system, ending up out in the river, which is the source of the drinking water system. Sound gross?

This is not news to me, being a water industry professional. These compounds, known as "personal care products" or micro-contaminates...we have lots of names for them...are being studied in wastewater and drinking water systems worldwide. The effects of things like estrogen on aquatic life is being studied, but we have no idea if these teensy tiny amounts of drugs will have any longterm affects on humans. The fact is that these chemicals are really hard and expensive to test for, and are unregulated. They are not removed completely in standard treatment plants. One of the most interesting things I'm involved with now is a research project to study how the technology I design and sell might help treat these compounds.

So the environmentalist in me says maybe they ought to be regulated. But the economist in me knows that such regulations would cost billions of dollars, probably not in federal money but in the form of drastically increased water and sewer rates and city tax rates, for something that we really don't know how much of a health risk it is, right now it appears to not be much risk at all.

This is always the trade-off with me, the conflict in my mind is that I usually feel I just don't know enough of the details to make a sound judgement on it...whether the cost is justified to offset the potential risk. My bottom line opinion is that if the Democrats take office, it will likely be great for my industry, but really bad for my own personal pocketbook and for the economy as a whole.


Sharkey said...

The newspaper article I read sounded a little more balanced than the TV headlines you mention. At least the newspaper report mentioned that the chemicals were in such low concentrations as to be measured in parts per million or parts per billion. It also mentioned that more thorough methods of cleaning are cost-prohibitive on a large scale and can "leave several gallons of polluted water for every one that is made drinkable."

I hate it when the media gets hold of something like this and sensationalizes it without stating half the facts. The same thing happens all the time with cancer research and "discoveries."

Jenifer said...

yeah, the media does love to trade in hysterics. in other places, it's far more balanced.

i wonder if various filtration systems available (for in home use) work to remove these sorts of pollutants from the water.

i doubt it, but it would be good to know. then, whether or not it's done at the large scale (treatment plant level), it can be done at the individual level for those for whom this is at issue.

ps, i didn't qualify for that market study. it's because i didn't think i was going to buy any of the products--but i answered because i havent' decided, nto because i'm not buying them--and i didn't know what one of them was (pack n play? no clue).

ah well. :D

Mainline Mom said...

hmmm, interesting point sharkey...not sure which treatment methods they are speaking about that would leave several gallons of polluted water for every one that is drinkable...not sure I buy that, but it depends what they mean. And it's parts per trillion, mainly...

jenifer, no household water systems don't remove those chemicals either, although that would be a good idea...

part of the problem right now is that the tests themselves to look for these contaminants in water are VERY expensive and laborious...in fact the tests really have only been recently developed...most have to be done in high-tech university labs or research centers because of the equipment involved.

Side note: jenifer a pack 'n play is another name for a playpen, or essentially a portable crib. most useful when the baby is very little and you have a two story home and you want to put the baby to sleep nearby...also good for general containment and most have a diaper changing station component that is useful for the newborn stage.

sometrouble said...

I saw the same news stories today too. I hate when the media blows scientific things out of proportion to scare people. I really wonder how information spins out of control in the newsroom...are they all just sitting around thinking up ways to make it sound more frightening? It's all about the ratings...it wouldn't be "news" if they said "there's trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in the water, they've been there for a while, and there's not enough to worry about."

I do think it is a good idea to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals in some way OTHER than flushing them, though.

It does make me wonder what the effect of this chemical issue will be on the water and life years from now.

Undercover Mutha said...

I heard about this from my mom this afternoon. The simple fact remains, we all have to die some time. The media seems intent that we all die of the same thing: worry.

It's good to see your perspective on this. :)

running42k said...

I think the main problem is the source, we as a society are far too reliant on pharmaceuticals. We are far too quick to think a pill is the answer. If we cut back on the amount of drugs we take, the water situation will clean up as a result.

MomtoMom said...

Ok, so reverse osmosis doesn't remove the pharmaceuticals? It was my impression that the drugs weren't in the water because we are flushing unused drugs, but used drugs in our waste. What do you think about the fish and frogs with changing reproductive systems that are being found? I am very curious because this story caught my husband's eye.

Bill said...

What seems particularly revealing about this story to me, a layman in the water quality debate, is that what we flush down our toilets winds up coming out of our faucets into our drinking water and our bath water. It's great that you as a professional knew this already. I'm not so sure I did so it's good to know that the facts are now out there for us all to see.
Some people in America, not all as you have pointed out, but at least some of us would rather not be putting this cornucopia of chemicals into our bodies no matter how diluted the professional establishment assures us the mix is. In terms of who should pay, I think the consumers of drinking water should pay to the extent that natural water supplies aren't sufficient and need to be treated. Polluters should pay for the cleanup of their pollution. Since the polluters in this case are the drug users, they should pay, but the only way to single them out is to make them pay when they purchase the drugs in the first place. We pay a deposit for the disposal of things like tires and batteries when we purchase them new. Why not make drug users pay for the safe disposal of their drugs when they buy the drugs?
It's interesting how an issue like this triggers automatic response mechanisms in our minds. It's especially interesting that one of the most powerful of these automatic responses is the denial mechanism. It's fine if other people want to freak out about this drug pollution issue, but why should I worry about it since the chemicals we are talking about are in such small quantities. What's far more important to us is the state of our pocketbooks and bank accounts. Our bodies and our brains aren't vulnerable to the collective effects of pollution.
But setting the psychology aside, I have wondered how those electronic alkalizers that you can buy for your own home tap water affect various chemicals in the water. Those machines take in tap water and put out two streams of water, one with high pH, the other with low. The high pH water is alkalized drinking water while the low pH water can be used to water plants or whatever you might use acidic water for. Does the alkalized discharge from these machines still contain chemical pollutants?
Maybe engineers could design electronic devices that could pull undesirable chemical wastes out of the waste treatment discharge stream and recycle them back to the pharmaceutical industry. Or maybe we could bury them in corrosion-proof containers in Nevada's Yucca Mountain along with our nuclear waste. When it comes to disposal of human waste, the possibilities are endless, aren't they?

Mainline Mom said...

Note to my readers, in case you misunderstood, this is not about flushing unused drugs down the toilet. It's caused by the drugs going through our body and coming out in our PEE.

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