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Drugs in Your Drinking Water?

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Over ten years ago, pharmaceutical residues were found in lakes in Switzerland. A girl in middle school in West Virginia read about the drugs in Swiss lakes, and wondered about drugs in our nation’s waters. Local school teachers had no answers for her. She asked the U.S. Geological Survey and they also had no information. She took samples of the Ohio River that flowed past her hometown and sent them to the U.S. Geological Survey for assessment.

There were indeed drugs in the water, a finding that prompted a major U.S. study. A recent five month investigation by the Associated Press discovered that small quantities of drugs, including antibioticin, synthetic hormones, and anti-seizure compounds, have been found in public drinking water supplied to over 40 million Americans across the US.

Japan studied the concentration of the most commonly prescribed medication found downstream in Japanese rivers. They linked pharmaceutical residue levels to the volume of prescriptions dispensed in those local areas. German scientists have found drug residues in Berlin’s water supply. They support further research into what they suspect is a Europe-wide problem. A recent study showed that the British consume 2,700 kilograms of a potent chemotherapy drug simply by drinking municipal water. And they consume about 45 kilograms of the active ingredient in oral contraceptive pills—an ingredient that has been linked to freshwater fish actually changing sex.

While the health consequences to humans of pharmaceutical residues in our water supply remain largely unknown, the impact on our environment and our wildlife is starting to be documented. And there may a link to the increased incidence of infertility in humans from these drug residues, as some of the drugs work by shutting off human hormone production.

According to the September 29, 2008 issue of The Independent in Great Britain, several research studies have demonstrated that conventional water purification cannot remove some prescription drugs from contaminated water.

Even worse, chemicals that by themselves may not be cause for alarm may have serious consequences when consumed with other chemicals in the water supply. A recent issue of the British journal New Scientist spoke to the potentially devastating additive effects of chemicals.

As concerned as we are about pesticide residues in our food, and with more and more consumers moving to organic food, there is still no government protection of bottled water, which is consumed by the millions every day. Many of us are careful to eat well, exercise, practice other wise lifestyle choices, and use pharmaceutical drugs only when absolutely necessary. Yet we may be ingesting drug residues every time take a sip of water.

AAHF continues to monitor and support legislation that addresses important health care issues—like the cleanliness of the water we drink.

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