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Drugs, In Our Drinking Water

Charles Strand, Water Quality Specialist

As if we did not have enough worries already about the quality of our drinking water, we now find that caffeine and many prescription drugs are being detected in our public and private water systems.

It is not a very pleasant thought, but, on average, about 10% of the water we drink has been drunk before. The same amount of water that exists on this planet today existed millions of years ago, to the drop! Our planet continuously recycles and re-uses this finite supply of water. Only recently have we learned how fragile and finite our water resources really are. We are now finding traces of compounds in our water that no one ever thought to look for before.

In 1999, a 17-year-old West Virginia high school student, Ashley Mulroy, read a report in a science magazine describing how European scientists had recently discovered that “drugs of all kinds, including antibiotics, were flowing in rivers, streams, ground water and even in tap water.” After reading this statement, she decided to embark on a science project of her own. Over a ten-week period, Ashley and her mother drove for miles along the Ohio River, taking samples of the water from different sites. She then returned to her hometown and had the samples tested for three common antibiotics: penicillin, tetracycline and vancomycin. To her surprise, she found traces of all three antibiotics in the samples she had taken. Ashley then sampled tap water in three nearby towns. All three, including water from the drinking fountain at her school, were contaminated with the antibiotics in question. Ashley received several science project awards and, more importantly, opened the eyes of many U.S. scientists.

Researchers from the U.S. EPA and the National Geological Survey have now found traces of antibiotics, birth control drugs, anti-depressants, and even caffeine in many water samples taken across the country. Large farming operations and wastewater treatment plants release billions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into our environment each year. Only now, after a high school science project, are experts discussing the potential dangers of trace levels of drugs in our drinking water.

USA Today, in an 11/8/00 news release stated, “Experts fear that even low levels of antibiotics fouling the nations water supply may help create super-bugs: micro organisms that have evolved to survive an antibiotic's lethal assault.” These super-bugs may be causing “tens of thousands” of deaths each year in the U.S.A, according to Abigail Salyers, an expert on antibiotic resistance at the University of Illinois. Christian Daughton, a Chief of Environmental Chemistry for the EPA warns, “Water pollution by drugs is a newly emerging issue.”

Our public water treatment plants are not designed to remove drugs and other synthetic chemicals from our water. Without waiting for the final verdict on the actual effects of drinking a mixture of drugs and other chemicals, we can safely assume that they will be negative. The only question is, how negative and why wait?

Home water treatment can reduce the risk, conveniently and economically!

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