Health Blog

Flushing your body and flushing the toilet – not so innocent anymore

A study discovers that water supplies are tainted with an array of everyday drugs.

March 13, 2008

It was funny to see a polished TV newscaster grimace in horror yesterday at the thought of “feminized fish,” but with the release of an Associated Press investigative study about drugs in our water, this issue is coming to the attention of many Americans. They may wonder, “Am I one of the 41 million whose water supply is full of antibiotics, sex hormones (the culprits that can make male fish look like females), and heart medications?”

The five-month study revealed that 24 metropolitan areas across the country have detected drugs in the drinking water. And while the doses are miniscule, too small to have an effect by themselves, scientists are not sure what a mix of all these pharmaceutical products can do over the long term. Evidence from animals living in these drug-contaminated waters show that maybe there is cause for concern.

The fishy part in all of this is that even though water utilities have kept track of what’s found in the water they provide, they have not felt the need to tell anyone. It’s probably news to many Americans that the medicines they take could end up in the water they gulp down in the future.

This is because of our body’s natural function. Not everything in a little pill is absorbed by the body – whatever’s left goes through the system and into the toilet. Then the leftover drugs make their way into water treatment plants, which pump water into rivers and lakes. Some of that water gets cleaned again to flow out the tap.

The problem is that water treatment is not precise enough to get rid of all the drugs, so they circulate back to consumers.

There’s not much we can do to change the way our bodies function in absorbing drugs. But some local officials in Virginia Beach are encouraging people to think before disposing any unused medications down the drain. They recommend wrapping them up and tossing them with smelly garbage like kitty litter, to discourage anyone rooting through the trash from using the unwanted drugs.

But that of course leads to more trash, and who knows what other effects. It seems that the issue is complicated, and without clear solutions, perhaps the best plan is to focus on reconsidering our growing use of prescription drugs.

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Alan Dove says:

As a reporter who covered this story two years ago, way ahead of the AP, I suggest bagging and landfilling your old drugs rather than flushing them. Also, as you point out, reducing our overall use of prescription drugs would be a good plan.

But let’s not let all the hype about prescription drugs in the water obscure the nonprescription drugs that are there. According to the sources I interviewed in 2006, ibuprofen and acetominophen (Motrin and Tylenol) are among the most common pollutants in treated sewage, and they don’t seem to break down. Meanwhile, researchers in Italy actually used cocaine levels in the Po River to back-calculate illicit drug use in a nearby city. And at least one maverick wants to filter drugs out of the waste stream and recycle them back into patients – maybe a bit yucky, but definitely feasible.

curiouspirit says:

“And at least one maverick wants to filter drugs out of the waste stream and recycle them back into patients – maybe a bit yucky, but definitely feasible.”

Now that’s going green gone wrong lol

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