Pharma Pollution

America’s drinking water is becoming increasingly contaminated by pharmaceuticals. This is an insidious form of pollution that is, for the most part, legal.

Today, at least 46 million Americans are affected by pharmaceuticals in drinking water. Pharmaceuticals and personal care products include over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, dietary supplements, hormones, cleaning agents (especially antibacterial cleaners), and the inert ingredients that are associated with these products.

Of special concern are endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs). EDCs are synthetic compounds which either block or mimic natural hormones, which in turn disrupt normal functioning of organs.

From 1999 to 2002, the United States Geological Survey studied surface and groundwater samples from around the country to determine whether pharmaceutical chemicals were present. They found at least one compound in 80% of streams and 93% of groundwater – the most commonly found compounds were steroids, over-the-counter medications, and insect repellants.

Effects Already Seen
Some argue that these chemicals are found in our drinking water in such tiny amounts (parts per trillion or ppt) that they cannot possibly cause human harm. However, insulin, estrogen, and other hormones are exceptionally potent chemicals that operate at concentrations of ppt, and fetuses are sensitive to chemicals in the parts per quadrillion range.

Already these chemicals are being associated with reproductive abnormalities in fish – male fish bearing eggs – and genetic damage in frogs and other indicator species. The potential effects on humans are now coming to be understood. EPA admits that endocrine disruptors “may cause a variety of problems with, for example, development, behavior, and reproduction. They have the potential to impact both human and wildlife populations.” Even the drug industry is expressing concern.

In addition to direct health effects, the widespread presence of antibiotics in our water is fostering the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  This could result in the spread of human diseases that cannot be treated by our current arsenal of antibiotics.