Water is perhaps our most important and precious resource, and for most of us the purity of our drinking water is a serious concern. Being vigilant about our water is a lesson we learnt the hard way from history: Contaminated water spread deadly diseases like cholera and typhoid, and continues to be a major health threat in developing countries.
When Americans were asked to rate their level of worry about 12 environmental concerns in Gallup’s annual environmental survey conduced March 6-9, the top four concerns related to water quality, with pollution of drinking water the top overall concern.
Just a few days later, on March 10, the Associated Press published the shocking results of their five-month investigation, reporting that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas, including Southern California, Northern New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.
Of the 62 major water providers contacted, the drinking water for only 28 was tested. Philadelphia (my home town) scored the worst, although it claims it tested for more drugs and byproducts than other utilities. It found 56 of 72 pharmaceuticals or byproducts tested for in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, psychiatric illness and heart disease. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city's watersheds.
Among the 34 water providers that haven't tested their drinking water for pharmaceuticals are: Houston, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Phoenix, Boston, Seattle and New York City.
The presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment is nothing new, and the scientific community has been studying the issue with growing concern for several years. The recent improvements in analytical chemistry now allow detection of trace levels of chemicals and unfortunately, as a result of their growing use, these compounds have been found in aquatic systems, in sewage treatment plant effluents, aquifers deep underground, surface waters and even drinking waters in North America and across Europe.
Is it cause for alarm?
It’s definitely no cause for celebration.
The federal government doesn't require any testing for drugs in drinking water, and there are no standards for acceptable levels.
It’s going to be hard to definitively prove that these trace medications cause harm to people, and impossible to prove they don’t. Scant studies on cell cultures and animal models show negative effects. The amounts found in drinking water are indeed very small, and it would take years of drinking water to reach the dose that is taken therapeutically in one pill of any one of these drugs.
The growing concern in the scientific community centers on the chronicity of the low dose exposure (our body may deal well with a one time ingestion of a chemical, yet suffer damage from much lower exposure spread over time), the unique combinations of these low dosed drugs acting synergistically, allergic reactions that can occur even in low doses, and that these drugs can form new metabolites -- drugs can be transformed into other compounds whose effects are completely unknown.
On top of that there’s the concern for aquatic life exposed to drugs and the contribution to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria caused by the presence of antibiotics in the environment.
The AP report says most standard techniques used by municipal water treatment facilities allow many pharmaceuticals to slip through and only advanced treatments such as reverse osmosis will remove virtually all detectable pharmaceutical traces.
In the interest of full disclosure, Ayala’s Herbal Water, our company’s product, uses a multi-step purification method, including reverse osmosis, that’s intended to remove all dissolved particles.
As water becomes scarcer, the need to reuse waste water only increases. The use of prescription drugs continues to rise. The extent of this problem will only grow if it’s not addressed.
The AP report has finally turned the spotlight on this important issue, and since water has always been a major focus of consumers’ concern I’m sure we’ll be hearing more on this subject.