When I read about an EPA study released earlier this year that found trace residues of at least 25 different drugs in drinking water, I panicked. This was on the heels of a study that linked acetaminophen in pregnancy with ADHD in children. If occasional use of endocrine-disrupting drugs like acetaminophen could affect a baby, what could they do to the rest of us if we were ingesting drugs on a daily basis through drinking water? Are there drugs in my drinking water? Yes, as well as contaminants linked to cancer. After a moment of panic, I took these steps—and you should, too. After calming down a bit, I decided to take some steps to assess the situation. First was figuring out what exactly was in my drinking water. So I hopped on over to the Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water Database to find out. This is a great and easy-to-use tool, but because it was last updated in 2009, the information may be out of date. (For more updated info, I could also have contacted my local utility for a water-quality report or called the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.)
The database couldn’t tell me what drugs were in my drinking water, but it did show levels of contaminants such as trihalomethanes as over the legal limit several times during the five-year period of testing. Trihalomethanes are disinfectants that are applied to water in treatment plants and have been linked to liver, kidney and central nervous system problems, plus an increased risk of cancer. Oh, joy.
On the plus side, no mercury showed up in our drinking water. So there’s that.
I briefly considered converting my entire drinking water supply to bottled, until I realized that it could actually be worse for our health, because:
1. A Natural Resources Defense Council report found that 25% of bottled drinking water is actually tap water.
2. Although they now must label bottled water from municipal sources, manufacturers aren’t required to regularly test their water—or disclose what they find in it—unlike tap water, which is tested weekly by the EPA.
3. Many plastic water bottles contain hormone disrupting chemicals like BPA, which can leach into water.
4. Bottled water is expensive—ringing up as much as $50 per month for a family of four. And we’ve got five.
Instead, I took a deeper look at our refrigerator filtration system, which I use for cooking and drinking water. Ours is carbon made from coconut shells, which filters for chlorine, lead, sediment, dirt and rust. And I know from reading up on the EPA study that charcoal does work to filter some pharmaceuticals. Phew!
In the meantime, I checked out additional filtration options at EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide. I’m fantasizing about a whole house reverse osmosis filter, which addresses substances that carbon can’t, such as arsenic and chromium—also detected in my drinking water—as well as perchlorate, which wasn’t.
And I’m also trying not to obsess about the drugs in our drinking water—although the study findings were truly frightening. Scientists examined samples from 50 wastewater plants and tested for 56 different drugs; they found medication to treat high blood pressure was found in the highest quantities, but over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and prescription drugs such as hydrocodone were also found.
It does make sense, considering a 2013 Mayo Clinic Study which found that 70 percent of Americans now take prescription drugs, compared to 48 percent just five years ago. The drugs get into our water when we excrete them or flush old drugs down the toilet.
But because the pharmaceuticals register in such small amounts—measured in parts per billion, in some cases—health officials aren’t worried about the risk to humans. However, some are concerned about their effect on plants and wildlife, especially fish.
In fact, last year the FDA denied a petition that would have required pharmaceutical companies to do a more thorough analysis of how drugs in wastewater will affect aquatic life.
In the meantime, scientists have been measuring pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supply for more than a decade, after fish were found to have both male and female characteristics linked to oral contraceptives.
Giving me even more reason to change my water filter.