Drugs on Tap: What's In Our Tap Water?

Here’s a question to ponder. What happens to the hundreds of millions of prescription drugs and the over-the-counter medications that are swallowed daily?

The answer: they go out through the plumbing. Being flushed down the toilet and into the sewage system, 90 per cent of every drug swallowed is either excreted, totally unchanged, or is broken down into active metabolites. They then continue on their way into your water supply to eventually return as a chemical cocktail flowing out of your kitchen tap!

In addition to pharmaceutical drugs, there’s another group of chemicals sneaking down the drain. More than 10,500 chemical ingredients are used to manufacture what is collectively known as personal care products. These products include moisturisers, cleaners, bubble baths, shampoos, fragrances, deodorants, mouthwashes and sunscreens etc. Research has shown that vast numbers of these chemicals can alter our endocrine, neurological, respiratory and immune systems.

This collection of chemical compounds has been officially classified as Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Pollutants (PPCPs). PPCPs comprise a very broad, diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances, including prescription and over-the-counter therapeutic drugs, fragrances, cosmetics, sun-screen agents, diagnostic agents, nutraceuticals, biopharmaceuticals, and many others. This broad collection of substances refers, in general, to any product used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons. Until recently little if any thought had been given to what may result from the staggering quantities of chemicals that are washed down the toilet , or rinsed from our bodies.

It is estimated in the Environmental Health Perspectives Supplements, 1999, that ‘the amount of pharmaceuticals and personal care products entering the environment annually is about equal to the amount of pesticides used each year."

Many pharmaceutical drugs and personal care products have persistent chemicals that remain biologically active even after being relegated to landfills and water systems. Hospitals, doctors’ offices, veterinary clinics, farms and even the average home are all contributors to the PCPP overload.

Other sources of PPCPs include unused medications (which are commonly flushed down the toilet), leaking septic systems or discharge from wastewater treatment plants. It’s indeed a sobering thought to realise that our personal grooming habits as well as our reliance on pharmaceutical drugs may, however unwittingly, contribute to global PPCPs pollution.

The fact is no one really knows to what extent these chemical mixtures might be altering our health. Many chemicals are designed to profoundly affect humans’ physiology. Unlike pesticides, drugs and personal care products, these mixtures have not been examined for their effect on the environment. This is surprising, especially since certain pharmaceuticals are designed to modulate endocrine and immune systems.

Unintended Consequences

In the 1980s the issue of PCPPs emerged as a serious area of investigation in Europe. A German study in Small Flows Quarterly by Nikki Stiles, found PCPPs in treated and untreated sewage effluent, surface water, ground water and drinking water. Most commonly found medications were anti-inflammatory and pain-killing drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs anti-convulsants and oral contraceptives. Samples from 40 German rivers and streams turned up residues of 31 different PPCPs.

More recent findings in Berlin found significant amounts of antibiotics, ibuprofen, cholesterol-lowering drugs, hormones (oestrogen), and chemotherapy agents in that city’s ware supply. British scientists estimate that more than a ton of aspirin and a ton f morphine derivatives flow down just one small river in north east London every year.

Samples from 139 US streams showed detectable, although minute, quantities of PPCPs. The most frequent were steroid hormones and non-prescription drugs. Antibiotics, prescription medications, detergents fire retardants, pesticides and natural and synthetic hormones were also present.

Between 30 and 90 per cent of most antibiotics given to humans and animals is excreted with the urine. The problem is particularly acute in the fish and farming industry where, according to an article in New Scientist, 1999, 70 to 80 per cent of antibiotics end up in the environment.

Would you like birth control pills with your coffee?

Synthetic steroid hormones are taken by one hundred million women wordwide as oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy. Both natural and synthetic oestrogen as well as oestrogen-mimicking chemicals from degradation of plasticizers enter sewage treatment plants.

A Canadian study provided concrete evidence of just what exposure to these chemicals portends. For three years, Canadian scientists added birth-control pills into a pristine Ontario Lake set aside for research to measure this impact. The results: all male fish in the lake – from tiny tadpoles to large trout – were feminized egg proteins were growing abnormally in their bodies) This was an unmistakable sign of hormone disruption. Feminized male fish have now been found in rivers and streams worldwide.

Theo Colborn, author of Our Stolen Future, is worried about pharmaceutical oestrogens mixing with chemicals already present in streams.

You can liken it to the side effects of a prescription drug – you don’t know how it’s going to interact with the over –the-counter drugs that you’re taking. For example bisphenol A, a compound of plastic causes female mice to reach puberty earlier than normal. Bisphenol A forms a weak bond with the body’s oestrogen receptors. It can scramble a cell’s natural communication system and cause it to replicate too quickly That, in turn, raises concerns about breast cancer in women. What happens if this compound, which is active at low levels of exposure, combines with oestrogen from a birth control pill in the water? At this point, it’s still unclear. It cold have long-term health effects.’ (4)

Could oestrogen-laced water contribute to shaply falling human sperm counts? In Europe, researchers have tied a decline in male sperm count to levels of oestrogenic hormones in the environment. Unfortunately, the rising numbers of breast and uterine cancers, early puberty, and hypospadias (a birth defect of the urethra and the penis), reveal a most disturbing picture. It appears that this unnatural exposure to potent oestrogen hormones as well as oestrogen mimics could be seriously and irrevocably altering critical hormonal signalling for adults as well as vulnerable infants and children.

Antibiotics – too much of a good thing

Detection of antibiotics in drinking water is of particular concern. The presence of these chemicals in the environment can lead to the development of resistant bacterial strains, contributing to antibiotic resistance. Some of the antibiotics detected were Class 1 drugs, (the one used when other antibiotics don’t work).

A bacteria-phobic public now uses millions of pounds annually of triclosan, a broad-spectrum anti-microbial agent. Triclosan is a derivative of the herbicide 2,4-D. It is the active ingredient found in a plethora of products such as anti-bacterial soaps, deodorants, mouthwashes, sponges and household cleaners. Triclosan’s popularity has contributed to the antibiotic resistance problem.

If triclosan-initiated antibiotic resistance wasn’t bad enough, researchers found that when triclosan in water was exposed to sunlight, it converted into a dioxin. When first exposed to sunlight, triclosan becomes a mildly toxic chemical. The problem occurs when it becomes treated with chlorine at water treatment plants; it then breaks down to something even more potent. (5)

What is particularly ironic is that the use of triclosan-treated products has never been proven to be superior to regular soap and water.

Just drink your prozac and call me in the morning

In 2004, major headlines in Britain announced that Prozac was found in drinking water. This situation has been described as a ‘hidden mass medication of the unsuspecting public’. Since there is no way to monitor for levels of Prozac or other PPCPs, a serious public health crisis is brewing. In the UK, there has been a 166 per cent increase antidepressant prescriptions since 1991 – up to 24 millions prescriptions a year. The most popular kind is the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which include Prozac, Zoloft, Luvox, and Seroxat/Paxil.

What might result from Prozac-aced water? US researchers found traces of Prozac and antidepressants in the livers, muscles, and brains of bluegill fish in Texas. In addition, they found traces of Prozac in Prozac-free people who ate the fish.(6)

Low-level exposure to fluoxetine, the active ingredient of Prozac, delays both development in fish and metamorphosis in frogs. The researchers strongly suspect that results imply a disruption of thyroid function.

We know that the thyroid levels peak with metamorphic climax, when the legs and arms form and the tail resorbs. We believe that fluoxetine inhibits the thyroid.’ (7)

When it comes to the possible side effects of PPCPs on humans and aquatic life, there are more questions than answers. It is a truly daunting task to assess the possible harmful effects of just one PPCP much less the exposure to thousands. And what might be the consequence of al those incalculable permutations of drug mixtures?

No one really knows.

Where do we go from here?

The problem of pharmaceutical and personal care pollutants has been clearly identified; the tricky part is what to do about it.

One obvious action would be to choose non-toxic alternatives. Choosing natural therapies replaces the dependency on pharmaceutical drugs. Also find your political voice on a local and national level as well as supporting environmental organizations.

One practical solution to the flush problem woud be a pharmaceutical take-back programme – like those implemented in several European countries, Australia, and Canada.

What about water sewage plants?

It is a well-established fact that conventional sewage treatment technologies do not completely remove drug and chemical residues. While other methods, such as activated carbon filtration or treatment with ultraviolet light, could effectively remove PPCPs, they are costly approaches. So, if we can’t rely on the municipal water treatment systems, it’s really up to each person to find their own solutions. It is not advisable to drink tap water, for example – a much healthier choice would be a reputable brand of bottled spring water.

The most effective water purification system for removing PPCPs is an activated carbon filtration system. Investing in a high quality whole-house water system using an activated carbon filtration method which purifies all the water used in your home drinking, bathing, and washing, would be your best line of defence, if your budget can manage it. At the very least use an activated carbon filter such as reverse osmosis.

[Editors Note: A water ionizer is considered by experts to be the very best water purification system - it filter and ionizes the water to remove all pollutants and harmfull acid molecules from the water, but leaves all the beneficial substances intact. A reverse osmosis or water distiller can leach essential minerals from the body. ]

The day may come will take responsibility for the life cycle of their products; when the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration will enact protective regulations for PPCPs; and new sewage treatment technologies will be developed that safely remove PPCPs. But for fight now, it seems that we’re on our own.

In a world of connectedness, we are again painfully reminded that nothing we do exists in isolation. Our most ordinary choices, in this case the drugs we ingest and the personal care products we use, may have lifelong consequences not just for us but also for all the unsuspecting people and wildlife downstream. Remember, everyone lives downstream from someone,

More information

Sherrill Sellman, N.D, is the author of Hormone Heresey and What Women MUST Know To Protect Their Daughters From Breast Cancer.

Her free monthly e-Digest is available from www.ssellman.com



1. www.waterindustry.org

2. www.water-ed.org

3. www.gsenet.org

4. www.keepmedia.org

5. www.eces.org

6. www.eces.org/articles

7. www.usawaternews.com