Our Water Has a Drug Problem


Last year, it was widely reported that drinking water in many major metropolitan areas was contaminated with trace amounts of drugs. All types of drugs – everything from over-the-counter pain medications to antidepressants to prescription medication for high blood pressure and heart disease.

The drugs we ingest pass right through our bodies and are expelled in our urine. These drugs aren’t removed in the water treatment process and the water is released into our rivers and lakes, which serve as our water supply.

The chatter eventually died down with assurances that the amounts were so small they couldn’t possibly impact human health. But how do we know that for certain? The truth is, we don’t know enough about the effects of prolonged exposure and possible interactions between all the different drugs we ingest in our drinking water.

Drugs given to animals enter our water supply in the same way. Not only does this practice contaminate the water with steroids, hormones, and antibiotics, but because antibiotics are overused (given to healthy animals to prevent disease and increase growth) there is a high likelihood of deadly, drug-resistant infections that can be passed onto humans.

Of particular concern is a staph infection called MSRA which is killing more than 18,000 Americans a year and, as was recently reported, is showing up on hog farms.

Another recent story outlines how river fish in urban areas are contaminated with trace amounts of drugs, simply from living in the rivers through which our treated sewage flows. River fish in Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Orlando were all tested and compared to fish from a river in New Mexico into which no treated sewage flows.

The fish were tested for 24 different pharmaceuticals and 12 chemicals found in personal care products. Trace concentrations of seven drugs were found in fish at all five of the urban river sites. None were found in the fish from New Mexico.

These issues are part and parcel of the same problem. The drugs we take, dump down the sink or toilet or give to animals end up in the water supply because there is no “away”. When we throw things away or flush our toilets, our stuff has to go somewhere.

Last month, Congress introduced a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. It aims to prohibit farmers from feeding antibiotics to healthy farm animals. This is great and long overdue, but it won’t entirely solve our drug problem.

We must also shift our thinking. Planners, policy makers, corporations and individuals all need to remember that we are connected to one another and all things are part of the web of nature. Everything we do has some effect downstream. We must all begin to think less linearly and more holistically about our actions.

In the meantime, you can start by finding out more about the antibiotics issue here.

Image: publik15

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.