Today’s big scare piece in the news is about the detection of various pharmaceutical substances in water supplies around our country.
There probably is legitimate cause for some concern. However, as is often the case, the major news media turn it into a scare-fest, with a “three-fer” chance to flog favorite headline-grabbing themes: pharmaceuticals, conspiracy, and environmental impact.
Here, from the CNN article, I’ve extracted some of the inflammatory and fear-mongering greatest hits (emphases and comments mine), leaving out the various conspiracy-type comments (you can get the whole picture by reading the article here):
- A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows…(now there’s a measured, balanced statement, full of context and nuance!)
- …the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health..(which scientists? how well quantified are the consequences? what’s the fair balance of others who are less concerned?)And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals, recent studies — which have gone virtually unnoticed by the general public — have found alarming effects on human cells and wildlife. (give concrete examples, please.)
- Officials in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city’s watersheds. (quantities, please? there will be trace amounts of just about everything in water supplies – what are we looking at here in ppm? ppb? ppt?) The situation is undoubtedly worse than suggested by the positive test results in the major population centers documented by the AP…(what is the basis for this statement??)The AP’s investigation also indicates that watersheds, the natural sources of most of the nation’s water supply, also are contaminated…(all watersheds are “contaminated” with an array of substances – again, what are the concentrations?)
Rural consumers who draw water from their own wells aren’t in the clear either, experts say… Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don’t necessarily avoid exposure…Contamination is not confined to the United States…In the United States, the problem isn’t confined to surface waters. (we can’t escape! It’s everywhere!)
Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation. (does this research parallel what is happening in the water supply?? it’s one thing to apply certain substances to cells on a lab bench. It’s another for a person to ingest miniscule amounts of…something or other…in the course of daily life)
Also, pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the nation and around the globe, research shows. Notably, male fish are being feminized, creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel species at the foundation of the pyramid of life — such as earthworms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory, studies show. (what research, what studies, and how do these studies parallel what we’re discussing about water supply?)
Our bodies may shrug off a relatively big one-time dose, yet suffer from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a half century, perhaps subtly stirring allergies or nerve damage. Pregnant women, the elderly and the very ill might be more sensitive. (pure speculation)
The article does close with a good money quote, however – this, I can agree with:
- “We know we are being exposed to other people’s drugs through our drinking water, and that can’t be good,” says Dr. David Carpenter, who directs the Institute for Health and the Environment of the State University of New York at Albany.
The fact is, we should find ways to better detect and filter pharmaceuticals – and anything else that doesn’t belong – from our water supplies. I would really prefer not to be sipping Premarin or Avelox or metformin, even in trace amounts. Unfortunately, a rational and scientifically sound approach will remain obscured behind this fog of hype and fear until the newshounds find something else to flog in order to sell papers.
[You might legitimately wonder where my convictions are regarding environmental issues. The most accurate summary I can come up with is that I believe in Creative and Realistic Stewardship:
Creative: we are to use our God-given talents to employ Earth’s resources toward enhancing life for ourselves and others
Realistic: everything has impact on the environment; we are to learn from our mistakes and embrace the fact that there are constant trade-offs between conservation and utilization
Stewardship: we are accountable for making the best use of resources; minimizing harm to the entire environment and to future generations, while maximizing opportunities to improve positive progress
I believe in the creative endeavors of finding and developing life-saving drugs. I believe in the creative endeavors of carefully-monitored biotech development that will allow for more abundant food. I believe in focused research on alternative energy sources that will actually provide a reasonable benefit-risk ratio. I don’t believe in unbalanced hype that only obscures the truth.]
Mr. Shiney says
The article does have a lot of flaws, but it does raise some legitimate issues. Should we be doing more testing to find out what the scope of the problem really is? Should we be investigating possible trends– e.g. is the concentration of these compounds going up over time? And (most importantly perhaps) is there anything realistically that can be done to slow or reduce the concentration of these compounds? For those that think articles like these are just another reason to drink bottled water, I liked the fact that the article mentioned that most bottled water comes from municipal supplies or is completely untested/unregulated. At least drinking the tap water you have some protection.
Steve Woodruff says
I agree with every single one of your comments. And, I’d love to see far more in-depth testing done on bottled water, which is one of the biggest money and resource-wasters ever!
There are a few filters on the market that are certified for the removal of synthetic organic chemicals (SOCs) and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Most prescription and over the counter drugs fall under those categories. Check them out http://www.waterfiltercomparisons.com
I hope you find this information useful. Until there’s some standard set for the removal of prescription and OTC drugs I guess it’s up to us to do it on an individual basis.