Contaminated Drinking Water

What is actually in our water other than fluoride? Is it pure or does it contain impurities and toxins? If we take heed of the water companies, they will tell us that water is absolutely pure due to being filtered at source. Wrong! This is absolutely untrue.

Have you ever come across a bottle of prescription tablets or a medicine bottle that you no longer needed or perhaps had passed its expiration date? You probably disposed of the substance by flushing it down the toilet, down the waste-disposal unit or throwing it in the trash?

It is extremely concerning that environmental contaminants originating from industrial, agricultural, medical and common household substances, ie., pharmaceutical waste, cosmetics, detergents and toiletries are being disposed of into the water systems of the world. A variety of pharmaceuticals including painkillers, tranquilisers, anti-depressants, antibiotics, birth control pills, oestrogen replacement therapies, chemotherapy agents, anti-seizure medications etc., are finding their way into the water supplies via both human and animal waste from disposal into the sewage system.

Flushing unused medications down the toilet and pharmaceutical residue from landfills has a tremendously detrimental impact on groundwater supplies and thus drinking water. Agricultural practices are a major source of this contamination and 40% of antibiotics manufactured are fed to livestock as growth enhancers. Manure, containing abundant traces of pharmaceuticals is often spread on land as fertiliser from which it can leach into local streams and rivers and thence into the water table. Conventional wastewater treatments, filtration and recycling as commonly used by our water companies is not even close to being effective in eliminating the majority of pharmaceutical residues.

The presence of pharmaceuticals in tap water is not a recent phenomenon however. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that as long as pharmaceuticals have been in use, they and their metabolites have contributed to overall environmental contamination. What IS new is our ability to detect trace amounts of these contaminants in water; hence, we are now finding pharmaceuticals in water because we are now able to easily detect them.

According to an article published in the December 2002 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, the amount of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PCPs) released into the environment each year is roughly equivalent to the amount of pesticides used each year.

During 1999-2000, the US Geological Survey conducted the first nationwide investigation of the occurrence of pharmaceuticals, hormones and other organic contaminants in 139 streams from 30 states. A total of 95 contaminants were targeted including antibiotics, prescription and non-prescription drugs, steroids and hormones, 82 of which were found in at least one sample. In addition 80% of streams sampled were positive for one or more contaminant. Furthermore, 75% of the streams contained two or more contaminants, 54% had greater than five, while 34% had more than ten and 13% tested positive for more than twenty targeted contaminants. There is no valid reason to believe that this is not the case elsewhere in the world.

Pharmaceuticals have since been found in treated sewage effluents, surface waters, soil and tap water. Antibiotics and oestrogens are only two of many pharmaceuticals suspected of persisting in the environment either due to their inability to naturally biodegrade or continued prevalence as a result of continuous release.

Recent monitoring studies fail to address one question: Are the levels of pharmaceuticals in the environment significant? At first glance, one would say ‘no’ since levels found in the environment are six to seven orders of magnitude lower than therapeutic doses in spite of the fact up to 90 percent of an oral drug can be excreted in human waste. However, low and consistent exposures would not likely produce immediate acute effects but rather subtle impacts such as behavioural or reproductive effects that could very well go unnoticed.

In addition, concern remains over the increasing practice of artificial recharge of groundwater with sewage effluent where pharmaceuticals have been found to percolate into the groundwater. Some common pharmaceutical contaminants are known to persist for more than six years in the sub-surface or groundwater.

The bad news is that conventional water and wastewater treatment methods allow many classes of pharmaceuticals to pass through into our drinking water supplies unchanged and untreated.

So, what is the true risk assessment of pharmaceuticals and other similar contaminants in water? Do they present a health threat to any humans, animals (or even plants) being exposed to them? Many scientists are concerned about long-term, chronic and combined exposures to agents designed to cause a physiological effect in humans and believe we should be very concerned about aquatic ecosystems where sperm levels and spawning patterns in aquatic organisms have been clearly altered in environments heavily polluted with a class of hormone-altering pharmaceuticals known as endocrine disrupters.

With a growing and aging population as well as increased reliance on drug treatments and development of new drugs, the problem with pharmaceutical contamination promises only to increase.

Since we all drink tap and bottled water routinely, every single day in one form or another would it therefore not be unreasonable to conclude that we are all being systematically ‘poisoned’ on an ongoing basis? Worse still, could any of these substances be cumulative in nature, making the impact on our health and that of our children even more significant? As long as the water corporations continue in denial over this issue, I would suggest that the health of every one of us is at serious long term risk, all through that supposedly most benign of all substances, water.