The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Drugs In Our Drinking Water

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It's tricky to talk about pharmaceuticals in the drinking water without risking two really unfortunate side effects: 1) Make people panic that their tap water is unsafe. 2) Send listeners running to Costco to buy pallet-loads of overpriced, highly packaged, and often dubiously-sourced bottled water.

You can never really say enough about everything that's wrong with bottled water (which, by the way, adheres to lower safety standards than what comes out of your tap-– sorry, couldn’t resist!). But when it comes to drugs in the water, what strikes me as most interesting is what we know the least about: What do these tiny, tiny amounts of drugs mean to us humans?

"The dose makes the poison" is a mantra I hear constantly from public health experts (as well as my editors)– and it's worth considering. In other words: just because something exists does not mean it's affecting you. It's likely we're exposed to far more toxins in the act of, say, applying nail polish, or pumping a tank of gas, than we'll imbibe over a lifetime of drinking tap water. But it'll be interesting to watch this play out over the next decade or so, as scientists on all sides of the debate try and figure out what exactly effect our environment-– pharmaceuticals, nail polish, plastics, and countless other everyday substances– is having on us.



Listen to the Drugs In Our Drinking Water Radio report online.
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Category: Water

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.
  • http://www.rxdrugsinfo.com rxdrugsinfo

    The question is how much exposure that will become danger to human or animal. Maybe we have been already affected but no one know.

  • http://www.friendsofwater.com Timothy Hickey

    While the argument goes on about whether the risks are high or not, stop drinking chlorine, fluoride, and whatever else is in your drinking water. As Amy notes, bottled water is not sustainable. The best solution is a good water filter and your own water bottles. I recommend SIGG water bottles.

    Don't wait – protect your family's health.

  • http://saveSFbay.org Save The Bay

    Pharmaceutical pollution is indeed a concern with regard to our drinking water. I second Timothy Hickey’s recommendation of using a good water filter and metal water bottles like SIGG or Clean Canteen.
    Unfortunately, however, pharmaceutical pollution also poses a severe risk for wildlife in our watershed. In fact, studies have already found high levels of acetaminophen in San Francisco Bay water. Flushed medications that contain estrogen are causing fish to switch genders – male fish grow egg sacs, or female fish turn male.
    I think recent media and blog attention have underscored the importance of NOT flushing unwanted medicine down the toilet or putting it in the garbage, but rather disposing of unwanted or expired pharmaceuticals at a household hazardous waste facility or pharmacies with take-back programs, which is a good thing. To that end, check out http://saveSFbay.org/pharmadispose for a handy list of safe disposal sites around the Bay.

  • http://www.sciencecafesf.com Kishore Hari

    swdAs a water consultant, this report is near and dear to my heart.

    I find it interesting