Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


I’ll Have a Glass of What You Had Yesterday

• April 25, 2008 • 7:44 PM

Humans are actually less likely to be harmed by traces of detergents and drugs in our drinking water than are other species.

Water is used over and over again.

Karl Linden, an engineering professor at the University of Colorado, would like the public to understand how trace elements of the more than 3 billion prescriptions Americans fill every year can be found in the nation’s drinking water.

“The water in the Mississippi is used, reused, treated and served as drinking water many times before it reaches the delta at New Orleans,” Linden said.

Water from wastewater treatment facilities is poured back into rivers; effluent from agricultural operations feeds streams; manure used to fertilize fields may find its way into the groundwater; and humans excrete the prescriptions and over-the-counter remedies they’ve taken into the toilet. (Up to 90 percent of an oral drug can pass through the body unchanged.)

“We are really re-using all our water,” Linden said. “If a chemical or pathogen doesn’t get removed in our wastewater plants, it is likely getting into someone’s water supply.”

A cocktail of trace elements appears in water supplies across the nation, including compounds from cosmetics, detergents and toiletries, painkillers, tranquilizers, anti-depressants, antibiotics, birth control pills, estrogen replacement therapies and anti-seizure medications. They are commonly referred to as “emerging contaminants,” or PPCPs (pharmaceuticals and personal care products).

Traces of these elements were documented in a recent Associated Press survey of 62 water providers; at least one pharmaceutical was found in the drinking water supplies of 28 major metropolitan areas. Trace levels of as many as 56 pharmaceuticals or their byproducts were found in one water supply. The survey set off alarms around the country, and while there are alarming statistics associated with this, there are also many qualifiers.

Pharmaceuticals have been on the radar of the United States Geological Survey since the early part of this century. A study released in 2002 sampled water downstream from urban areas and found that one or more contaminants were found in 80 percent of the waterways.

Since that study, the Geological Survey has completed about 160 more on the topic. Herbert Buxton, a lead author of the study, notes what several researchers interviewed for this story said: The reason we’re able to view this as a problem is simply because we have much better vision. Mass spectrometers are allowing researchers to spot trace elements at as little as a part per trillion.

“When you drop a sugar cube in an Olympic-size swimming pool the concentration is a few parts per billion,” he says. “We’re talking about parts per trillion (today’s detection). The other side of the coin is some of those are active at very low levels —particularly the ones that are hormonally active or that mimic hormones.”

Trace elements of these compounds have been in our water supply for some time. Many researchers are saying the nanogram levels at which PPCPs are being found at are unlikely to harm people, although further study is needed.

For aquatic species, it’s another story.

Several species of fish have shown signs of feminization and some studies have found endocrine-disruptive processes that could threaten the survival of species.

James Lazorchak, manager of the Environmental Protection Agency Aquatic Research Center, authored a study with Mitchell Kostich looking at the amounts of 371 active pharmaceutical ingredients consumed in the United States. They developed a risk analysis and predictions for what exposure to the ingredients might do to humans and aquatic species.

Lazorchak says the next steps are to test the study’s predictions by analyzing treated wastewater effluent using new analytical chemistry methods and then exposing test subjects in the lab to the most commonly found pharmaceuticals at the levels detected.

Results could determine what sorts of ingredients threaten aquatic species, he said. Like other researchers, Lazorchak notes the threat to humans may have been overplayed by the AP survey. “At the concentrations that are being found out there, you’d have to drink 250,000 gallons of water a day to get one dose (of some of the ingredients),” he said.

Lazorchak was a co-author of a well-known Canadian study (www.umanitoba.ca/institutes/fisheries/) in which researchers dripped the active ingredient in birth control pills into a near pristine Canadian lake at levels commonly found to damage aquatic life. After about seven weeks, male fathead minnows took on feminine biological and behavior attributes and, after two years of dosing, the minnows stopped reproducing. The result of three years of dosing was a near extinction of the species.

It’s not just fish. The AP survey documents other studies that have shown kidney failure in vultures, impaired reproduction in mussels and inhibited growth in algae caused by intake of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment.

Another concern is that bacteria might develop a resistance to antibiotics after exposure to the drugs in water sources. Monica Tischler, a biology professor at Benedictine University near Chicago, has been able to isolate 205 types of bacteria in the feces of Canada geese, many of which showed strong resistance to streptomycin, erythromycin, vancmycin, tetracycline and penicillin-family drugs.

Her current study will determine if bacteria in the guts of goslings are similar to adults (which are able to fly and are exposed to other environments, including agricultural areas). If the bacteria isolated from goslings show a similar resistance to antibiotics as the adults, it is likely that this trait has been passed on through mutations or gene transfer.

Citing the rise of multi-resistant tuberculosis, Tischler noted that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a long-standing concern. “If there are antibiotics pervasive in the environment that foster resistance, then we don’t necessarily have the tools to help those of our loved ones who are sick,” she said.

In agricultural areas, animal treatment is a major contributor to the contaminant load in waterways. An estimated 40 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are fed to cattle as growth enhancers. Growth hormones for livestock have been used for decades and veterinarians are increasingly treating animals with pharmaceutical compounds originally developed for human consumption.

The AP survey also created a stir among the nation’s water management and federal agencies, and the Environmental Protection Agency currently does not require testing for pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

It’s most recent regulatory action concerned a more traditional water problem, the intestinal parasite cryptosporidium. The EPA and water managers have been gearing toward methods to address that diarrhea-causing bug.

That fight demonstrates some of the challenges facing water managers. Chlorination, the nation’s most common water treatment method, is basically a disinfectant and does not remove PPCPs. Other methods of water purification — ozonation, oxidation, exposure to ultraviolet light, carbon filtering, membrane technologies, reverse osmosis — are effective on various contaminants but are more expensive and often need to be used in combination to remove a significant part of the organic contaminants.

Because some pharmaceutical compounds are “hydro-loving,” Linden said, they are not easily removed during water treatment.
The United States might look abroad for help. European countries are ahead of the curve on the problem, partly because they were among the first to identify PPCPs in their water supply. Other factors are their chosen water treatments (chlorination hasn’t been a common method of treatment) and a willingness to pay more for clean water in the face of a growing need.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at two treatment facilities that are leaders in addressing not only PPCPs in water but also reuse of wastewater.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

Joan Melcher
Joan Melcher is a freelance writer and editor living in Missoula, Montana. Her work ranges from travel magazine articles to stories on breaking research.

More From Joan Melcher

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.