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Clear But Not So Clean: Pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water

24 Jun. 2011 Posted by Hannah Mich in water pollution, chemicals in drinking water, pharmaceuticals
water pollution, chemicals in drinking water, pharmaceuticals

Although our drinking water is clear, it does not mean that it is free of all harmful substances – hence water filters. What is bewildering to me is that we have this amazing grasp on the existence of germs even though we cannot see them. But when it comes to harmful chemicals in our drinking water, food and home, we often seem completely dumbfounded that they are there. Why is there this gap between understanding “unseen” germs and acknowledging the existence of “unseen” chemicals? A lack of education, poor environmental awareness and may be just not enough time to adapt to the idea are possible explanations.

Our water is treated with a series of chemicals and becomes a mixing pot for lots of other pollutants including pharmaceutical drugs and waste. Many of these drugs are measured in parts per billion [ppb] in our water, which is not a lot; one ppb is equal to one microgram in one liter of water. This is like one drop or ½ mL of chemical in an olympic size swimming pool, which is filled with 500,000 L of water. However, small does not mean it is insignificant.

The presents of any harmful substance in our water should be of concern. What are the long-term health implications? How will this affect the future health of our waterways and surrounding ecological systems? Many chemicals are harmful in small amounts and exposure over time can result in an accumulation of these substances that far exceeds what is measured today. So how do some of these substances, drugs or chemicals get into our drinking water? And how do we remove them and decrease the amount released into our waterways?

Like many other manufactured goods, the manufacturing process of drugs creates byproducts and waste. Although companies have to manage this waste, it can still make its way into our waterways and drinking water. Even with advanced treatment systems to clean water of these impurities, they still fail to remove specific antibacterial and antifungal “agents”. And no pollutants or waste are filtered, or removed, 100 percent from water- the same water that is going back into rivers, lakes and our homes.

Now, let us go beyond the manufacturing process to when we take medications. Our bodies “filter” or break down drugs, which eventually get excreted in our urine. The waste goes into sewage systems that are often not equipped to clean and filter out such drugs. This waste, therefore, gets deposited into our waterways and drinking water.

Lastly, drugs like expired medications can make it into our drinking water because they are not disposed of properly. When drugs are thrown in the garbage, they can break down, get absorb into the ground, make its way into the groundwater, and eventually into our drinking water.

Most of us take some sort of drug, or medication, whether it is over-the-counter or prescription. We, therefore, need to take responsibility for what those drugs do to our environment, and our own drinking water. We need to managing our drug intake, dispose of medications properly, improve our sewage systems, and regulate the waste management systems of pharmaceutical companies.

Call To Action: 

Support pharmaceutical recycling programs
Find natural alternatives to drugs
Dispose of expired drugs properly

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References: 

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996217/pdf/ijerph-07-03929.pdf
"International Journal of Environmental Research"; Human Health Risk Assessment of Pharmaceuticals in Water: Issues and Challenges Ahead; Arun Kumar, et al; 2010

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920901/pdf/ehp-118-1016.pdf
"Environmental Health Perspectives"; Meeting Report: Pharmaceuticals in Water—An Interdisciplinary Approach to a Public Health Challenge; Sara Rodriguez-Mozaz, et al.; July 2010

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