Troubled Waters: Drugs Dumped into Drinking Supply

By Amy Ascherman
|  Sunday, Apr 19, 2009  |  Updated 4:56 PM CDT
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Troubled Waters: Drugs Dumped into Drinking Supply

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Drugmakers continue to pollute drinking water thanks, in large part, to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that has evolved between federal and industry officials.

What's in your water?

Antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been found in American the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans, according to an Associated Press investigation.
 
U.S. manufacturers, including major drug makers, have dumped at least 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals into waterways -- and the federal government has repeatedly looked the other way.
 
Copper, used in both pipes and contraceptives, and nitroglycerin, a heart drug used in explosives, are among the hundreds of active pharmaceutical ingredients used in a variety of manufacturing.
 
The AP recently identified 22 such compounds, classified as both industrial chemicals by the EPA and as active pharmaceutical ingredients by the Food and Drug Administration, as a result of the ongoing PharmaWater investigation. The investigation traces concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water.
 
Federal and industry officials say the extent to which U.S. manufacturers release such chemicals is unknown because they are not tracked -- as drugs. Analysis of 20 years of federal records show the government has unintentionally kept data on a few, allowing some pharmaceuticals to be released from factories.
 
Federal drug and water regulators agree with drug makers who say the manufacturing does not significantly contribute to what is being found in water. Some researchers say the lack of required testing has evolved into a "don't ask, don't tell policy," which only contributes to water pollution. 
 
"It doesn't pass the straight-face test to say pharmaceutical manufacturers are not emitting any of the compounds they're creating," said Kyla Bennett, a former 10-year EPA enforcement officer and current ecologist and environmental attorney.
 
Some scientists say pharma-tainted water will be found wherever researchers look, although most cities and water providers still do not test for the drugs.
 
But it is not just manufacturers contaminating drinking water. Consumers who flush drugs down toilets and excrete the drugs their bodies do not absorb are considered the biggest contributors to water contamination. Nearly 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals and contaminated packaging are thrown away each year by hospitals and long-term care facilities.
 
Experts agree dangers this may cause cannot be ruled out though utilities say the water is safe. Scientists, doctors and the EPA say there are no confirmed human risks associated with consuming minute concentrations of drugs, but even extremely diluted concentrations of drugs harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species.
 
Emerging research also has shown that human cells fail to grow normally in the laboratory when exposed to trace concentrations of certain drugs. This has caused some scientist to believe that even exposure of small amounts of the drugs, over decades, could cause harm to humans.

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