Sedatives and Sex Hormones in Our Water Supply
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Editor's Note: Read more about this topic on AlterNet from Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch.
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.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!