Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients Are Destroying Your Water

Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients Are Destroying Your Water
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Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients

Think you know what pharmaceuticals you ingest everyday? Think again. Several decades worth of research, most recently and notoriously an April 2008 AP Investigation, has confirmed the pervasive presence of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in our nation’s water supply. Lesser known sources of water pollution, these drugs include antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones.

Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients Lesser Known Sources of Water Pollution

Certainly, one’s initial emotion upon learning of active pharmaceutical ingredients and hearing such reports might be fear, and not shockingly, much of the mainstream media has capitalized on this in articles like this one on the CBS News website last September. While his presentation is heavy on the fear-instilling, light on the solution-proposing, Jim Edwards is correct in pointing out:

“Very little attention is likely to be paid to a report by the General Accountability Office that says most drinking water in the U.S. is contaminated with pharmaceuticals, and most of those drugs are estrogen-based hormones and antibiotics.

The report is an important one because in essence it says that although the drug industry is poisoning the U.S. water supply with active pharmaceutical ingredients, no one knows how bad the problem is or what the solution might be. This, in fact, is the key reason the nonpartisan report will get very few headlines: The lack of information is, in itself, the heart of the problem.

Here are some scary facts from the report, most of which remain unaddressed by the federal government, state governments or the industry itself. More potentially frightening than the facts themselves however is the final part of Mr. Edwards’ introduction: ‘most of which remain unaddressed by the federal governments or the industry itself.”

Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients a Clear Health Threat

Despite reports by both the U.S. Government’s General Accountability Office and the Natural Resources Defense Council that intelligently and decisively call for action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made frighteningly little progress in addressing this clear threat to the safety of our water supply.

A March 2010 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that the concentration of active pharmaceutical ingredients in our water supply was so low as to be inconsequential and therefore unworthy of our concern or federal regulation.

However, a closer examination reveals that this study was funded and reviewed by three of the four most profitable pharmaceutical companies in the country. Indeed, this seems to be the resounding cry of such companies, but one must wonder a bit at the biases that those cries can’t help but incorporate, especially when compared to statements like that of the Endocrine Society, a non-profit association of physicians and scientists ‘devoted to hormone research and the clinical practice of endocrinology,’ in a scientific statement published in 2009:

“The evidence for adverse reproductive outcomes (infertility, cancers, malformations) from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals is strong, and there is mounting evidence for effects on other endocrine systems, including thyroid, neuroendocrine, obesity and metabolism, and insulin and glucose homeostasis.”

On the site, for ‘Breaking News on Global Pharmaceutical Technology and Manufacturing,’ Nick Taylor wrote an article in February in response to the European Commission’s plan to add three active pharmaceutical ingredients to its list of water polluting chemicals subject to restriction. The proposed chemicals, diclofenac, 17 alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2) and 17 beta-estradiol (E2) are used in anti-inflammatories, oral contraceptives and transdermal patches for menopausal women repectively.

Taylor’s article warns, under the heading ‘Extra Costs,’  of the potential dollar cost to pharmaceutical companies of both ‘take-back schemes’, where people are encouraged to return unused pharmaceuticals rather than disposing of them and of restricting the use of substances classified by environmental investigators as ‘priority hazardous.’

Both the Government Accountability Office, in its August 2011 report Environmental Health: Action Needed to Sustain Agencies’ Collaboration on Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water, and the NRDC in its 2009 report Dosed Without Prescription: Preventing Pharmaceutical Contamination of Our Nation’s Drinking Water, as well as in numerous testimonies before Congress, have respectfully, but insistently called our government agencies, particularly the EPA, to action.

Thus far, the EPA’s major effort has been the production of a paper entitled Treating Contaminants of Emerging Concern: A Literature Review Database, which is essentially a meta-analysis of articles referencing the treatment of contaminants of emerging concern (CECs).  The authors explicitly state in the paper’s introduction:

“Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), including pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), have been detected at low levels in surface water, leading to concerns that these compounds may have an impact on human health and aquatic life…

…This report contains the results of an extensive review of the recent literature on wastewater treatment technologies and their ability to remove a number of chemical contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). The data in the studies described in the literature are also available in a computer-searchable format. EPA developed this information to provide an accessible and comprehensive body of historical information about current CEC treatment technologies for wastewater. Wastewater treatment plant operators, designers, and others may find this information useful in their studies of ways to remove CECs from wastewater. In this report, EPA is not promoting any one technology nor is EPA setting Agency policy or priorities in terms of risk.”

The obvious question raised by such a statement: Why not? How exactly does an agency ‘protect’ the environment if it does not set policy or priorities in terms of risk when contaminants of emerging concern in our water are causing concern over their impact on human health and aquatic life? The ongoing saga of inappropriate proactivity and reactivity within our society continues.

Additional Sources:

Natural Resources Defense Council