Drugs in the Water: Who Knows and Who's Telling

The Associated Press has another following up on yesterdayâs investigative report about pharmaceuticals found in drinking-water supplies. They delve into the issue of whoâs studying water supplies, and whether theyâre revealing their findings. Accompanying the article is an alphabetical list of cities, so you can see whether your areaâs water has been tested, and whether traces of drugs have been found; here in Washington, DC, for instance, tests have turned up carbamazepine, caffeine, ibuprofen, monensin, naproxen and sulfamethoxazole.

Itâs nice that AP is supplying this list, because water providers and researchers often stay silent about test results:

When water providers find pharmaceuticals in drinking water, they rarely tell the public. When researchers make the same discoveries, they usually don't identify the cities involved.

There are plenty of reasons offered for the secrecy: concerns about national security, fears of panic, a feeling that the public will not understand â even confidentiality agreements.

Water providers are only required to tell people of a contaminant in their water if the contaminant is on an EPA list of substances regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act â and, at the moment, that list doesnât include any pharmaceuticals. EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles told the AP that the agency encourages utilities to âshare with their community information they find out about their source water,â but it seems that most cities are reluctant to do so. Several say they donât release results out of concern of what the public reaction will be:

"That's a really sensitive subject," said Elaine Archibald, executive director of California Urban Water Agencies, an 11-member organization comprised of the largest water providers in California.

She said many customers "don't know how to interpret the information. They hear something has been detected in source water and drinking water, and that's cause for alarm â just because it's there." ...

Initially balking at the AP's request to provide test results, Philadelphia Water Department spokeswoman Laura Copeland said, "It would be irresponsible to communicate to the public about this issue, as doing so would only generate questions that scientific research has not yet answered. We don't want to create the perception where people would be alarmed." ...

"It's a hard topic to talk about without creating fear in the general public," [Robert Renner of the American Water Works Association Research Foundation] said.

Some said those fears could lead to much larger problems than the actual contamination.

Doctors "don't want people to be afraid to take their medicine because of environmental concerns," said Virginia Cunningham, an environmental executive for drug maker GlaxoSmithKline PLC. ...

I can sympathize with the officials who are worried about consumer overreaction; people have certainly been known to fixate on the attention-grabbing headline or sound bite (âdrugs in your water!â), and miss the detailed explanation about how the levels of contamination are very low and not known to cause health problems. The problem is that once the information gets out (as is bound to happen), the story then becomes âofficials covered up results of drugs-in-water tests.â Then residents may get suspicious of officials, and be less receptive to their explanations about why the drugs in the water arenât cause for alarm.

The other rationale for not disclosing results is a little harder for me to understand:

Officials in Arlington, Texas, said pharmaceuticals had been detected in source water but wouldn't say which ones or in what amounts, citing security concerns. Julie Hunt, director of water utilities, said to provide the public with information regarding "which, if any, pharmaceuticals or emerging compounds make it through the treatment process can assist someone who wishes to cause harm through the water supply."

Mayor Robert Cluck later said a trace amount of one pharmaceutical had survived the treatment process and had been detected in drinking water. He declined to name the drug, saying identifying it could cause a terrorist to intentionally release more of it, causing significant harm to residents.

"I don't want to take that chance," Cluck said. "There is no public hazard and I don't want to create one."

Ron Rhodes, water treatment plant supervisor in Emporia, Kan., explained why he wouldn't disclose whether his community's source water or drinking water had been tested for pharmaceuticals. "Well, it's because of 9/11. We want everybody to guess."

How, Rhodes was asked, could it endanger anyone to know if Emporia's water has been screened for traces of pharmaceutical compounds?

"We're not putting out more information than we have to put out," said Rhodes. "How about that?"

So, there arenât enough dangerous substances already out there that could be introduced into any municipal water system and cause widespread harm? Or, would-be terrorists donât know about these substances, and canât spend 10 minutes Googling them, but will seize on the mention of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in a particular water supply to construct an elaborate plan in which they introduce a substance that interacts with existing traces of drugs to cause some particularly scary chemical reaction?

The risk of info about trace amounts of drugs leading to an act of terrorism is probably far smaller than the risk from ingesting those trace amounts of drugs every day for a lifetime. Yet, ever since 9/11, officials seem to think that mentioning terrorism will get the off the hook for failing to disclose hazards to the public.

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Great post Liz! The "9/11" mantra didn't work for Rudy Guliani so why do the municipal water authorities think it will work for them. Ridiculous.

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 11 Mar 2008 #permalink

I've been hearing that simple charcoal filters (like a Brita filter, or the link above) will purify the water... but (in my uneducated opinion) I'm finding that hard to believe. After all, if all we needed was a charcoal filter, why not apply it at the source?

But perhaps I'm wrong. Is there anyone with a little bit more of a background knowledge in the are that can shed a little light on the subject?

I have the same question as Tasha.

Also, nobody is saying what is the right thing to do to protect ourselves and our familys. I work hard to keep my family healthy by diet and exercise. We do not take prescription or OTC drugs, unless absolutely necessary. But now, it seems we all have to take other's drugs? I would love to run out and get drinking water and shower filters, but which ones? How do we know the claims on the packaging are correct?

Tasha and Jen, Some of the news articles on this say that reverse osmosis will get the drugs out of the water -- but that's a very costly and wasteful process, and not feasible for individual homes, as far as I know.

Jen, I wish I had a better answer for you about filters. As far as being concerned about your family, though, this probably shouldn't be one of your top worries. Exercising, eating well, and avoiding unnecessary drugs are great steps for your health; removing traces of drugs from your water pales in comparison. Do let your government officials know that you're concerned, though, because they need to be studying this problem and figuring out what the long-term solutions are.

The first, and most important, issue is to determine the concentrations of these drugs. It is now possible to measure minute traces of drugs that amount to extremely small percentages of a daily dose. It would be helpful to know the concentrations and a handy conversion factor, like,"If you drink 64 ounces a day you'll be ingesting x% of a standard adult dose." Human metabolism is good at processing small amounts of many things in the normal healthy adult. The elderly or individuals being treated for various different diseases may be another matter and need to be advised about safety levels. The same process applied to ATSDR's list of toxic substances and safe exposure limits could apply here. The first principle of toxicology is that everything is poisonous if given in a sufficient amount.

The Corp of Engineer's run Washington Aqueduct uses an anthracite-coal layer in its filtration processs, so I guess that step doesn't get out the pharmaceutical residue.

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 14 Mar 2008 #permalink

Thank you Liz Borkowski , for the information on "Drugs in the Water." I purchased a Aqauasana home filter today. (March 21, 2008). If I hadn't had the links to compare water filters I would have purchased Brita. The Aqauasana has two filter's. Whereas the Brita has one. The Aquasana filter's out more contaminants than the ones listed on that website link that was provided. Thank you so much. I was looking for a home filter system. I feel happy with my decision. Over all the filter system that I chose is cost effective. In the long run it will save me money and it does more. Amy, thank you for this link! http://www.aquasana.com/contamination_drugs.php

By Michelle Murphy (not verified) on 21 Mar 2008 #permalink

At the present time there is no way to filter out pharmaceutical from the water! Some pharmaceuticals are nano-particulate size which makes them almost impossible to filter. Most pharmaceuticals are eliminated through the urine or feces. No sewer plant can handle them! I fully suspect that with frog and fish mutating that we could see new deadly diseases from this! I wouldn't be drinking water from any tap except in areas were you know your source is coming from mountain streams! For example parts of the western U.S. would be safe but the east coast, CA, are at very high risk!
Also, don't fall for any water filters on the market! They are all smoke and mirrors. I know of no lab set up for detecting pharmaceuticals in your water. People are on hundreds of different meds! Chemo therapy in the water will cuase you to get cancer for sure. Most chemo ends up in the Water! This could be a major source of why we are seeing increased cancer rates, chronic fatigue, R.A. etc. The list goes on and on! Also, I wouldn't be drinking milk! Only drink soy milk. Regular milk is loaded with hormones. Most of the cattle in the U.S. and Canada have hormones given to them in their feed and hormone ear implants to make them grow faster. Stay away from beef! Chicken feed is loaded with hormones and antibiotics! Fish now have mercury and are full of estrogen and progesterone. It is from all the women on birth control peeing every day which ends up in the water! A friend of mine ate fish every day and found out she had high mercury in her system. Try becoming a vegetarian and drink bottled water! Also we are seeing more gay and lesbians in our society! Many have thought this is from a more open society and they are born this way. I am now thinking that maybe their mothers are drinking the estrogen/progesterone water which is causing abnormal sex mutation while the fetus is developing! We are seeing fish with both genitals and frogs mutating so maybe gays and lesbian having desires for same sex gender all goes back to the water!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Could hermaphrodites be due to the water?


Pharma-water is no good at all. It's a shame more tests aren't being done to dig deeper into the problem. I hope filtration companies catch up to this somehow.


May be time to re-read what you've written. A bit over the top.