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Water Supply Drugged

AP: Drugs found in drinking water Updated 9/12/2008 2:02 PM

Pritchard, Associated Press
A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.
To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe.

WATER DEPARTMENTS: Reports rarely released to public
BOTTLED WATER: Is it any safer?
NEW YORK CITY: Sedative traces found in water
LOS ANGELES: Water tops national taste test
RELATED: Problems in fish blamed on contamination

But the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.

In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas — from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville

FIND MORE STORIES IN: Washington | Philadelphia | Boston | San Francisco | Detroit | Miami | Houston | New York City | Phoenix | Baltimore | Southern California | Chicago | Tucson | Fairfax | Department of Environmental Protection | National Investigative Team | Northern New Jersey | Benjamin H. Grumbles | Passaic Valley Water Commission | Va. Montgomery County
Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a group representing major California suppliers said the public "doesn't know how to interpret the information" and might be unduly alarmed.

How do the drugs get into the water?

People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residue.

And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals, recent studies — which have gone virtually unnoticed by the general public — have found alarming effects on human cells and wildlife.

"We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Members of the AP National Investigative Team reviewed hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 officials, academics and scientists. They also surveyed the nation's 50 largest cities and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all 50 states.

Here are some of the key test results obtained by the AP:

• Officials in Philadelphia said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city's watersheds.

• Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California.

• Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment plant, which serves 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey, and found a metabolized angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking water.

• A sex hormone was detected in San Francisco's drinking water.

• The drinking water for Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas tested positive for six pharmaceuticals.

• Three medications, including an antibiotic, were found in drinking water supplied to Tucson.

The situation is undoubtedly worse than suggested by the positive test results in the major population centers documented by the AP.

The federal government doesn't require any testing and hasn't set safety limits for drugs in water. Of the 62 major water providers contacted, the drinking water for only 28 was tested. Among the 34 that haven't: Houston, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Phoenix, Boston and New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, which delivers water to 9 million people.

Some providers screen only for one or two pharmaceuticals, leaving open the possibility that others are present.

The AP's investigation also indicates that watersheds, the natural sources of most of the nation's water supply, also are contaminated. Tests were conducted in the watersheds of 35 of the 62 major providers surveyed by the AP, and pharmaceuticals were detected in 28.

Yet officials in six of those 28 metropolitan areas said they did not go on to test their drinking water — Fairfax, Va.; Montgomery County in Maryland; Omaha; Oklahoma City; Santa Clara, Calif., and New York City.

The New York state health department and the USGS tested the source of the city's water, upstate. They found trace concentrations of heart medicine, infection fighters, estrogen, anti-convulsants, a mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer.

City water officials declined repeated requests for an interview. In a statement, they insisted that "New York City's drinking water continues to meet all federal and state regulations regarding drinking water quality in the watershed and the distribution system" — regulations that do not address trace pharmaceuticals.

In several cases, officials at municipal or regional water providers told the AP that pharmaceuticals had not been detected, but the AP obtained the results of tests conducted by independent researchers that showed otherwise. For example, water department officials in New Orleans said their water had not been tested for pharmaceuticals, but a Tulane University researcher and his students have published a study that found the pain reliever naproxen, the sex hormone estrone and the anti-cholesterol drug byproduct clofibric acid in treated drinking water.

Of the 28 major metropolitan areas where tests were performed on drinking water supplies, only Albuquerque; Austin, Texas; and Virginia Beach; said tests were negative. The drinking water in Dallas has been tested, but officials are awaiting results. Arlington, Texas, acknowledged that traces of a pharmaceutical were detected in its drinking water but cited post-9/11 security concerns in refusing to identify the drug.

The AP also contacted 52 small water providers — one in each state, and two each in Missouri and Texas — that serve communities with populations around 25,000. All but one said their drinking water had not been screened for pharmaceuticals; officials in Emporia, Kan., refused to answer AP's questions, also citing post-9/11 issues.

Rural consumers who draw water from their own wells aren't in the clear either, experts say.

The Stroud Water Research Center, in Avondale, Pa., has measured water samples from New York City's upstate watershed for caffeine, a common contaminant that scientists often look for as a possible signal for the presence of other pharmaceuticals. Though more caffeine was detected at suburban sites, researcher Anthony Aufdenkampe was struck by the relatively high levels even in less populated areas.

He suspects it escapes from failed septic tanks, maybe with other drugs. "Septic systems are essentially small treatment plants that are essentially unmanaged and therefore tend to fail," Aufdenkampe said.

Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don't necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade group. The same goes for the makers of home filtration systems.

Contamination is not confined to the United States. More than 100 different pharmaceuticals have been detected in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and streams throughout the world. Studies have detected pharmaceuticals in waters throughout Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe — even in Swiss lakes and the North Sea.

For example, in Canada, a study of 20 Ontario drinking water treatment plants by a national research institute found nine different drugs in water samples. Japanese health officials in December called for human health impact studies after detecting prescription drugs in drinking water at seven different sites.

In the United States, the problem isn't confined to surface waters. Pharmaceuticals also permeate aquifers deep underground, source of 40% of the nation's water supply. Federal scientists who drew water in 24 states from aquifers near contaminant sources such as landfills and animal feed lots found minuscule levels of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs.

Perhaps it's because Americans have been taking drugs — and flushing them unmetabolized or unused — in growing amounts. Over the past five years, the number of U.S. prescriptions rose 12% to a record 3.7 billion, while non-prescription drug purchases held steady around 3.3 billion, according to IMS Health and The Nielsen Co.

"People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs it and it disappears, but of course that's not the case," said EPA scientist Christian Daughton, one of the first to draw attention to the issue of pharmaceuticals in water in the United States.

Some drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters, tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern drinking water and wastewater treatment processes. Plus, the EPA says there are no sewage treatment systems specifically engineered to remove pharmaceuticals.

One technology, reverse osmosis, removes virtually all pharmaceutical contaminants but is very expensive for large-scale use and leaves several gallons of polluted water for every one that is made drinkable.

Another issue: There's evidence that adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic.

Human waste isn't the only source of contamination. Cattle, for example, are given ear implants that provide a slow release of trenbolone, an anabolic steroid used by some bodybuilders, which causes cattle to bulk up. But not all the trenbolone circulating in a steer is metabolized. A German study showed 10% of the steroid passed right through the animals.

Water sampled downstream of a Nebraska feedlot had steroid levels four times as high as the water taken upstream. Male fathead minnows living in that downstream area had low testosterone levels and small heads.

Other veterinary drugs also play a role. Pets are now treated for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, dementia, and even obesity — sometimes with the same drugs as humans. The inflation-adjusted value of veterinary drugs rose by 8%, to $5.2 billion, over the past five years, according to an analysis of data from the Animal Health Institute.

Ask the pharmaceutical industry whether the contamination of water supplies is a problem, and officials will tell you no. "Based on what we now know, I would say we find there's little or no risk from pharmaceuticals in the environment to human health," said microbiologist Thomas White, a consultant for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

But at a conference last summer, Mary Buzby — director of environmental technology for drug maker Merck & Co. Inc. — said: "There's no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they're at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms."

Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation.

Also, pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the nation and around the globe, research shows. Notably, male fish are being feminized, creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel species at the foundation of the pyramid of life — such as earth worms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory, studies show.

Some scientists stress that the research is extremely limited, and there are too many unknowns. They say, though, that the documented health problems in wildlife are disconcerting.

"It brings a question to people's minds that if the fish were affected ... might there be a potential problem for humans?" EPA research biologist Vickie Wilson told the AP. "It could be that the fish are just exquisitely sensitive because of their physiology or something. We haven't gotten far enough along."

With limited research funds, said Shane Snyder, research and development project manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a greater emphasis should be put on studying the effects of drugs in water.

"I think it's a shame that so much money is going into monitoring to figure out if these things are out there, and so little is being spent on human health," said Snyder. "They need to just accept that these things are everywhere — every chemical and pharmaceutical could be there. It's time for the EPA to step up to the plate and make a statement about the need to study effects, both human and environmental."

To the degree that the EPA is focused on the issue, it appears to be looking at detection. Grumbles acknowledged that just late last year the agency developed three new methods to "detect and quantify pharmaceuticals" in wastewater. "We realize that we have a limited amount of data on the concentrations," he said. "We're going to be able to learn a lot more."

While Grumbles said the EPA had analyzed 287 pharmaceuticals for possible inclusion on a draft list of candidates for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, he said only one, nitroglycerin, was on the list. Nitroglycerin can be used as a drug for heart problems, but the key reason it's being considered is its widespread use in making explosives.

So much is unknown. Many independent scientists are skeptical that trace concentrations will ultimately prove to be harmful to humans. Confidence about human safety is based largely on studies that poison lab animals with much higher amounts.

There's growing concern in the scientific community, meanwhile, that certain drugs — or combinations of drugs — may harm humans over decades because water, unlike most specific foods, is consumed in sizable amounts every day.

Our bodies may shrug off a relatively big one-time dose, yet suffer from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a half century, perhaps subtly stirring allergies or nerve damage. Pregnant women, the elderly and the very ill might be more sensitive.

Many concerns about chronic low-level exposure focus on certain drug classes: chemotherapy that can act as a powerful poison; hormones that can hamper reproduction or development; medicines for depression and epilepsy that can damage the brain or change behavior; antibiotics that can allow human germs to mutate into more dangerous forms; pain relievers and blood-pressure diuretics.

For several decades, federal environmental officials and non-profit watchdog environmental groups have focused on regulated contaminants — pesticides, lead, PCBs — which are present in higher concentrations and clearly pose a health risk.

However, some experts say medications may pose a unique danger because, unlike most pollutants, they were crafted to act on the human body.

"These are chemicals that are designed to have very specific effects at very low concentrations. That's what pharmaceuticals do. So when they get out to the environment, it should not be a shock to people that they have effects," says zoologist John Sumpter at Brunel University in London, who has studied trace hormones, heart medicine and other drugs.



Troubled by drugs discovered in European waters, poisons expert and biologist Francesco Pomati set up an experiment: He exposed developing human kidney cells to a mixture of 13 drugs at levels mimicking those found in Italian rivers.

There were drugs to fight high cholesterol and blood pressure, seizures and depression, pain and infection, and cancer, all in tiny amounts.

The result: The pharmaceutical blend slowed cell growth by up to a third suggesting that scant amounts may exert powerful effects, said Pomati, who works at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Taken alone, this was a modest study. But in fact Pomati's work is part of a body of emerging scientific studies that indicate that over time, humans could be harmed by ingesting drinking water contaminated with tiny amounts of pharmaceuticals.

In another recently published study, Pomati discovered that some of those pharmaceuticals could amplify or reverse the effects of some others.

And Pomati's work indicates some drugs cause cellular effects at scant concentrations that strangely cannot be seen at higher levels.

Such findings are preliminary; they alone cannot demonstrate the same effects within the human body. But they provide scientific hints, just like cellular experiments that routinely guide discovery of new drugs.

They also heighten worry about the possible effects on especially vulnerable groups, like the very young, old or sick. "My wife is pregnant, and I don't let my wife drink the water ...," said Pomati.

Elsewhere in the world, other researchers are finding results similar to Pomati's.

In research awaiting publication, human breast cancer cells grew twice as fast when exposed to estrogens taken from catfish caught near untreated sewage overflows in Pennsylvania, compared with other fish.

The University of Pittsburgh researchers didn't calculate how much effect came from pharmaceuticals instead of natural hormones, but their earlier work points to birth-control pills and hormone treatments as important contributors, said lead researcher Conrad Volz.

"There is the potential for an increased risk for those people who are prone to estrogenic cancer," said Volz, who studies environmental hazards at the university's Cancer Institute.

He said people who regularly drink water containing low levels of hormones may be at higher risk, since they would presumably consume more of these drugs than those who only occasionally eat such fish.

Scientists at the Helmholtz research center in Leipzig, Germany, linked low levels of the pain reliever diclofenac to an inflammatory-like response in human blood cells, according to biologist Kristin Schirmer. Inflammation at the wrong time and place plays a role in conditions ranging from infections and arthritis to heart disease.

Sandra Steingraber, a biologist at New York's Ithaca College, adds that many efforts to determine how trace drugs affect humans don't fully consider the whole range of pharmaceuticals in the environment and whether someone has been exposed at more susceptible times, like during childhood or old age.

"The timing makes the poison as much as the dose," she said. "And the dose itself is not the dose from just any one thing it's from this whole kaleidoscope of chemicals."

Taking notice of accumulating evidence, the drug industry has backed studies of its own in recent years that have found very slight, if any, risk to humans.

But these studies haven't used water samples analyzed for drugs. Instead, the studies estimate danger from what's known about how much of a drug is sold and how toxic it is to animals. Then, safety margins are added for unknowns, such as possible effects of decades of exposure.

Those margins are just educated guesses. Also, the studies usually ignore what might happen to people exposed to the complex combinations of medicines that are often found in drinking water.

Then, there are the byproducts of the drugs. When medications are digested and processed through water treatment plants, they may take a new metabolic form.

"They miss some of the big issues. Our research shows mixtures are so prevalent," said Dana Kolpin, a U.S. Geological Survey water expert who launched a plethora of research in 2002 after finding pharmaceuticals in most samples taken from 139 streams in 30 states. "If there are any cumulative or additive issues, you can't just dismiss things so quickly."

Even if Kolpin is right, the industry may be focusing on the wrong pharmaceuticals, said chemist James Shine at the Harvard School of Public Health, who oversaw what's probably the broadest risk review yet, a yet-to-be-published study covering scores of the most common drugs sold in the United States.

As suspected, some chemotherapy drugs turn up high on that list. But blood-pressure diuretics, though rarely considered, appear to pose more risk than many drugs more often evaluated.

Even when researchers downplay risk, that may not be the final word.

People "are going to be concerned about being medicated by mandate when you turn on the tap," said Dr. Stevan Gressitt, a psychiatrist who's led a push for a program in Maine that allows consumers to turn in unused pharmaceuticals for secure disposal or destruction. "And that's going to be seen if the level is (only) one molecule in 100 taps."

-- The Associated Press



Traces of Cancer Drugs and Sedatives Detected in Britain's T Edge Listeners - Stories and Links -

Moderators: SuzieQ, Andy

Cancer drugs found in tap water By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 13/01/2008

Have your say Read comments

Britain's tap water should be monitored for powerful medicines after traces of cancer and psychiatric drugs were detected in samples, a report has warned.

The 100-page statement, commissioned by the drinking water watchdog, the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), reveals that pharmaceuticals are finding their way into the water supply despite extensive purification treatments used by water companies.

Trace levels of bleomycin, a cancer chemotherapy drug, and diazepam, a sedative, have been found during tests on drinking water, the report reveals.

advertisementWhile the levels are considered too low to pose a direct risk to health, doctors have expressed concern about exposing pregnant women to drugs that could harm an unborn child.

The report, compiled for the DWI by the consultants Watts and Crane Associates, recommends that drinking water should be monitored for hazardous drugs.

The report states: "The observed concentrations of pharmaceuticals in raw waste water indicate that the major source of pharmaceuticals to the environment is via sewage treatment works effluent.

"Drinking water treatment works use a wider and technically more advanced range of processes, but again these are not specifically designed to remove pharmaceuticals and several compounds have been reported in drinking water."

But it adds: "Even in the worst-case situation, there is no significant risk to health from the intake of pharmaceuticals via drinking water."

Sue Pennison, from the DWI, said: "The recommendations are now being considered and this may include conducting testing on drinking water."

The report comes as a separate study by environmental scientists has warned that toxic chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer patients are being washed into Britain's rivers. They, too, have called for testing of tap water to ensure there is no risk to people.

The study, carried out at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, examined the risks posed by chemotherapy drugs that escape into the environment through sewage.

The researchers estimated that an adult drinking more than three pints of water a day would receive a weekly dose of between 300 and 30,000 times lower than recommended safety levels.

They warn that a developing foetus would also be exposed to the drugs in the womb.

Andrew Johnson, the scientist who led the Wallingford study, said: "In the foetus, which is rapidly growing and comparatively tiny, the dose would be relatively higher and any damage to its cells could be far more serious.

"There is not evidence to show that drinking water treatment removes all these drugs, so while we are not wanting to alarm people, it would be foolish to assume there is no risk."

Sedatives and Sex Hormones in Our Water Supply

An AP journalist who helped lead an frightening investigative report considers the dangers posed to the country's drinking water. The five-month investigation of sixty-two metropolitan areas and fifty-one smaller cities found that many drinking water suppliers, including bottled water companies, do not even test for the presence of drugs in the water. The utilities that do test for drugs often don't tell customers about the trace amounts of medications in their water.


By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!. Posted March 25, 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: Saturday was World Water Day, and the United Nations estimates close to 1.5 billion people around the world do not have access to clean drinking water. What about here in the United States?

The Associated Press has conducted an extensive investigation into the drinking water in at least twenty-four major American cities across the country, which contain trace amounts of a wide array of pharmaceuticals. The amounts might be small, but scientists are worried about the long-term health and environmental consequences of their presence in the water supplies of some forty-one million Americans.

The five-month investigation of sixty-two metropolitan areas and fifty-one smaller cities found that many drinking water suppliers, including bottled water companies, do not even test for the presence of drugs in the water. The utilities that do test for drugs often don't tell customers about the trace amounts of medications in their water.

Jeff Donn is a National Writer for the Associated Press and one of the reporters who led this investigation. He joins us now from Boston.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeff. Why don't you start off, why you conducted this extensive five-month investigation? What tipped you off?

JEFF DONN: We were aware that there was some research, mostly in specialized technical journals, scientific journals, suggesting that there was this group of emerging contaminants, and one of the contaminants of most concern were pharmaceuticals in very low amounts. They've only been able to measure these kinds of pharmaceuticals well in the last ten years or so.

And we also were wondering -- I'm a former medical writer -- we were also wondering about pharmaceuticals in particular as a contaminant, because as opposed to traditional contaminants that you find in the water, pharmaceuticals are actually designed to interact with your body. So we wondered if that would pose special concerns and special problems.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you conduct the investigation? How did you find out what's in the water supply?

JEFF DONN: Essentially, we did two things. We checked scientific research, surveys that have been done already that they appeared in a variety of scientific journals. And then we did our own survey, and that's what you were referring to earlier in your introduction. We surveyed sixty-two large water utilities. Those are the people who bring drinking water to your homes and businesses. We also called fifty-one, fifty-two other smaller utilities, utilities in smaller cities, and we essentially asked them: What's been detected in your water? What kind of pharmaceuticals have been detected? And how do you treat your water? And does it cleanse your water of these pharmaceuticals?

AMY GOODMAN: So, who tests, and who doesn't? It seems like it broke into three categories: some test and know, some cities; some simply don't test for drugs; and some do test and don't reveal it.

JEFF DONN: That's right. About roughly half do test. And that was somewhat of a surprise. That really wasn't known before, because, like I said a moment ago, these pharmaceuticals in the water are contaminants that people weren't very well aware of and that have barely been reported on at all for the general public. It turns out that about half of the utilities either have tested themselves or are aware that someone else has tested. The USGS and other agencies, health departments also do some testing. And the vast majority that tested did find some pharmaceuticals in their water in these very low, trace amounts.

AMY GOODMAN: So let's talk about some of the examples: New York, traces of sedatives; Philadelphia, fifty-six drugs in the water; Denver, unspecified antibiotics; Las Vegas, I don't think I can even pronounce all of these drugs; Long Beach, California, unspecified drugs; Louisville, Kentucky, ibuprofen; Milwaukee, one drug; Minneapolis, three. Talk about what you found the most surprising, and go through the country, if you will.

JEFF DONN: I think what's most surprising is the range of drugs that are found and how widely dispersed these drugs are. It's not -- you might think it's just in the Northeast or it's just in California, it's just in population centers -- that's not true. There were places in the Midwest, where these kinds of drugs were found at all. There were some relatively less populated places than other places, where these drugs were found, as well. That's somewhat surprising. The range of drugs is somewhat surprising. Like you said, it's psychiatric medications, it's the antibiotics, it's pain relievers.

AMY GOODMAN: Let's talk about the psychiatric medications. Where did you find them?

JEFF DONN: There are -- one of the most common ones, Carbamazepine, is used as a mood stabilizer and an anti-epileptic medication as well. And Carbamazepine is found all over the country in these trace amounts. So it's the kind --

AMY GOODMAN: How does it get into the water supply?

JEFF DONN: That's a great question. These pharmaceuticals enter the water supply mainly, it would appear, through you, me and everybody else, through homes, through hospitals, through nursing homes. When we take a medication, when we take medicine, because we're sick, some of that medicine is absorbed by our bodies, and some of it passes right through our bodies. The relative share depends on the medication, but not all the medication is absorbed. So when you leave the bathroom, that medication enters into the waste stream. It goes through water treatment plants. Treatment plants are not designed to cleanse -- conventional treatment, at least, is not designed to cleanse all these pharmaceuticals, and some of them pass through, and some of these wastewater treatment plants are commonly upstream of your drinking water intakes all across the country. And those pharmaceuticals pass into the drinking water. Drinking water treatment in conventional form does not entirely cleanse them from the water stream, and they end up in varying degrees in our taps.

AMY GOODMAN: So it can either be through human waste, or you could be, for example, dumping this into the toilet, is that right? You could be emptying your medicine cabinet, for example.

JEFF DONN: You're exactly right. That's a whole 'nother avenue, by which pharmaceuticals enter the water stream. For years, people were told, and often told each other, that if you had a medicine that expired or you didn't need for some reason, you didn't take for some reason, dump it in the toilet so no one else can get at it, you know that it will be gone. But out of sight and out of mind -- but it turns out that that also contributes to these contaminants being in our water.

Since February of 2007, the federal government, for the first time, has put out guidelines for consumers, regular people like us, that, with the exception of a small number of medications that are particularly sensitive, generally the federal government now is asking people not to do that any longer, instead to mix those medicines with something unsavory so pets or children don't get at it -- coffee grounds, cat litter, something like that -- and to put it in a bag and to throw it in your regular garbage. What happens to it then is another question, but at least it doesn't directly and immediately enter the water stream.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that? What about when it's put in landfill and how it leaches into -- if it leaches into the water there?

JEFF DONN: That's the problem. There's not really much study of exactly how that process is occurring, but the scientists we talked to presume that to some degree it is possible, of course, that some of that pharmaceutical residue then will leach, as you say, from waste areas, from landfills, from dumps, and eventually end up back in the groundwater. And there is research, by the way, that shows that these low amounts of pharmaceuticals do end up -- are capable of ending up in aquifers, in the underground groundwater, and not just in streams and rivers and surface waters.

AMY GOODMAN: What about steroids given to cows and animals, Jeff?

JEFF DONN: Well, this is a whole 'nother avenue by which these drugs enter our water stream. Animals are given all kinds of drugs. Veterinary drugs are given to animals on farms. All kinds of antibiotics, all kinds of growth-promoting drugs are given to animals on farms. And these drugs eventually run off in rain and end up in the groundwater and in surface waters, and they're a whole 'nother large source of these pharmaceuticals that enter up -- that enter into the waste stream. Many of them are a lot like, or even in some cases identical to, human drugs. Some of them are different.

AMY GOODMAN: In San Francisco, you write that there's a sex hormone, what is it, Estrone in the water. What is that? How does that affect people?

JEFF DONN: These are used in hormone treatments and that women take at menopause and such. And they're -- the concern with sex hormones is that they're very powerful at even a very low levels. So there has been some concern for -- about these kinds of drugs for a longer time really than some of the other drugs that were detected in the water. It's been more like five, six, seven years that there's been some concern about sex hormones in the context of other kinds of chemicals that also, though not pharmaceuticals, have the ability to disrupt the human endocrine system. The scientists call them endocrine disruptors. So that's one of the older concerns in this very new field.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of cancer, people who are prone to cancer?

JEFF DONN: That's exactly right. There -- as you probably know, there are certain kinds of cancer that are prone to estrogen, and there is some concern that these kinds of pharmaceuticals, even in trace amounts, could possibly contribute to cancer. And even as we begin to talk a little bit about what the risk is, what the human risk is, there's even a little bit of research in human cells with these drugs at very, very low amounts, so the kind that are found in the environment, actually accelerating the growth of human cancer cells. That doesn't mean that they will do that in the human body, but it's just a first scientific hint that perhaps they could.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Donn, are there standards for drugs in the water around the country? What is the history of how water is protected, how we know what's in it? And what's going to happen now?

JEFF DONN: Well, there are really very few standards for pharmaceuticals. There are no national standards. In fact, the water utilities we surveyed aren't required to even test for them, much less to treat them. The kinds of things that are regulated in the water -- and there are many things that are regulated by the federal government in the water -- are things where the risk has been established: industrial chemicals, pesticides, people might think of dioxins. There are a lot -- people might think of lead. There are a lot of chemicals that have known risk to people.

Pharmaceuticals, at these low levels, are a newer kind of contaminant. The risk isn't very well understood yet, though we reported, probably for the first time, a body of emerging science that suggest that these low amounts could be a danger to people in the sense that they apparently can cause bad things to happen in human cells. And there's probably even a stronger case that these pharmaceuticals in the rivers and streams can cause harm to certain kinds of wildlife, fish. There's some work with low-level antidepressants with mussels and snails that suggest that these kinds of drugs can impair reproduction. So it's just the initial body of evidence that's suggesting that maybe there could be risk, but it's not a slam-dunk case like it is for certain industrial chemicals that are fully regulated.

AMY GOODMAN: In one of the pieces in the AP investigation, "No Standards to Test for Drugs in Water," it's written, "Congress held hearings in 2006 on endocrine-disrupting compounds after researchers discovered that the Potomac River, dotted with sewage treatment plants, contains feminized male bass which create egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. But the hearings produced no new proposals."

JEFF DONN: Yeah, and there were about, by the way, six trace pharmaceuticals, six different kinds of drugs, that were found in the Washington, D.C. area water in the survey we did, so they still have pharmaceuticals in their water. I think it's fair to say that not much in terms of concrete legislation came out of those hearings. People should know that the Senate Committee on the Environment, within hours of the release of our report, announced that it was going to be holding hearings on this whole issue, a much broader approach than the congressional committee took earlier. And they are talking about holding hearings on this issue in April.

AMY GOODMAN: And it's written, "At hospitals, the EPA flags about three dozen specific drugs as hazardous waste. [...] They say many hospitals still dump some of those hazardous pharmaceuticals into their other garbage. Also, the list hasn't been updated for years and ignores scores of troublesome newer drugs, including toxic chemotherapy agents."

JEFF DONN: The EPA says essentially that we can't keep up. Too many new drugs are introduced each year. We've got to base what we do on science, and we simply can't keep up with the number of new drugs that are being introduced on the market in hospitals, much less trying to regulate them in this way at home. So the EPA acknowledged that outright to us.

AMY GOODMAN: You also write about the difference between what the US and Europe is doing. After talking about Maine, which is preparing to accept unwanted pharmaceuticals on a grander scale, the federal and state governments have split the $300,000 cost to launch a four-county trial in coming months, where pharmaceutical buyers will take home prepaid mailers to send drug leftovers to a way station, where most will be picked up for transport to incinerators. Drug pollution stirs more anxiety in Europe, Canada and Australia. Why is that? And what is being done right now in Congress?

JEFF DONN: It is true that Europeans have been on the cutting edge of this, in some cases, more than American researchers even. They picked up on it earlier, recognized it as a potential threat earlier. Some of the best early research was done in Germany, for example. So they're a little more concerned about it, and they have national programs of a kind that we don't have to recapture some of these pharmaceuticals that are discarded. This is the issue we were talking about earlier with people having to throw away some of their medicines that have expired and they're not using for some reason.

So the French, for example, have had a program for some years where when you get medicine, you also get a prepaid mailer to send it back to the pharmacy if you don't use it, and that's eventually sent for incineration if it goes back to the pharmacy. And there was a poll done a couple years ago, and most French said they took part in that program, they participated in it. So it's not a strange idea to the Europeans. There's still limited regulation in other places in Europe, in Canada, in Australia, so there's this greater awareness, there's this greater concern, but there's still limited regulation and limited evidence on how great a concern this should be.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, bottled water, not even tested for any of this.

JEFF DONN: That's right. A lot of people think instinctively that, "Well, I drink bottled water. I don't have anything to worry about." As you say, the people in the bottled water industry acknowledged to us that they're not required to test for it. They don't test for these low amounts of pharmaceuticals. And by the way, I should say that we're talking about parts in billion or parts in trillion, very, very low amounts. They don't test for them. And as I said before, there's research showing that these trace pharmaceuticals can end up in groundwater. So part of the bottled water on the market is actually repackaged tap water, you have to remember, and then part comes from underground water sources. But since there's research that suggests that underground water sources can also carry these trace pharmaceuticals and their byproducts and since testing isn't done, bottled water isn't necessarily devoid of these contaminants either, I'm afraid to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Lautenberg, Senator Boxer -- Lautenberg of New Jersey, Boxer of California --

JEFF DONN: Yeah, yep.

AMY GOODMAN: Your investigation has prompted calls for regulation and documentation of these drugs. Can you tell us what these senators are doing?

JEFF DONN: That's right. There's the Committee on the Environment that says it's going to hold hearings, as I said a moment ago. And then, other congressmen have pushed the EPA to establish a task force on this, to establish a more aggressive program for testing. There has been pressure on the EPA in the last week or two since our series came out. There has been pressure on state and local governments to do more testing. Illinois, for example, said that it's going to begin a testing program now. There's pressure to not only test, but to tell people when tests are taken and when these pharmaceuticals are found, because we found that the vast majority -- the vast majority -- of water providers do not routinely tell the public when they find these contaminants.


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