How safe is your drinking water?
A glass of clear, cool water sits on my desk. There is nothing floating in it, no cloudiness, nothing to be seen by my eyes. Without hesitation, I take a drink knowing I have added protection from a well-maintained carbon-filtration system...and it tastes as fresh and pure as it looks. In fact my water in Los Angeles just won an award from the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting for the best tasting municipal water supply in 2008.
Now our southern neighbor Orange County has just brought online their new state-of-the-art drinking water system that rejuvenates its underground aquifers with both gray and wastewater. The system uses nature and sophisticated technology (including being zapped by UV rays) to provide drinking water to the 2.3 million people of the region. Many have muttered the concept as the "toilet to tap water" program, and initially it does seem tough to swallow. After doing some research on the process, my confidence in the system has been slowly increasing...though, admittedly I have not tasted it.
Then on March 10, 2008, the AP report comes out revealing that prescription drugs are making their way through to municipal water systems of 41 million people across the US. These “Emerging contaminants” are substances not normally tested for in water-quality sampling, and we find that not only are they normally not tested, the systems in place cannot remove these chemicals. Even my home carbon system can only filter out some of them.
How did they get there?
The Union of Concerned Scientists reveal "in 2004 in the United States, almost half of all Americans were taking one prescription drug. Five out of six people 65 years and older were taking at least one drug, and half of that age group three or more medications". Additionally, approximately 3 million pounds of antibiotics are used to treat human disease in the US alone. Add to that the 25 million pounds or so that are given to US pigs, cows and chickens, and that is mostly brought on by the living conditions of these farmed animals. (http://cielap.org/pdf/NoAway.pdf)
Many out of date and unused prescriptions are discarded into toilets and flushed into the water treatment system that isn't capable of removing or breaking down these compounds. We also add 50-90% of the active ingredients of these drugs after we excrete them, since our bodies typically only absorb a small amount of what we take. About 30% of pharmaceutical compounds are not soluble in water but are fat-soluble, which means if they are not removed they last in the environment and can make it into our food chain.
After leaving our homes, hospitals, farms & drug manufacturing plants, the water is brought to a local treatment plant where it undergoes facilities processes before being let back out into our rivers and streams. This water works its way back into the drinking water when the downstream facility picks it back up for their community.
What can be done about it?
Utilities may need to add combinations of technologies to remove these microcontaminants, such as UV, ozonation, advanced oxidation processes, granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and tight nanofiltration since no-single technology in use today is capable of removing them alone. Until then, people should:
1) Only use prescriptions (including over the counter drugs) that are absolutely necessary.
2) Any unused or out-of-date prescriptions should be taken back to the pharmacy for proper disposal.
3) Look into buying organically grown products and meats.
4) Buying bottled water may be no better since it often has the same exposures as tap.
5) Adding a carbon filter to the tap will not stop all chemicals, but it is an easy addition and will be better than doing nothing.
6) Write your local government officials and let them know this is unacceptable.
Humans need water for survival, and virtually all liquid products that we consume contain water as the primary ingredient. If the US government has spent all of its money on a war on terror, they have neglected the terror felt by the public who feel they are not being protected in our own homes. Pharmaceutical companies make incredible amounts of profit from these drugs, and they should be able to fund water municipalities for upgrading local facilities to treat for these chemicals.
Remember, YOU have the POWER!