“Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air,” sang Tom Lehrer in his classic 1960s send-up, “Pollution.” All these years later, with our waterways breathtakingly cleaner, he still may be onto something.
One year ago at this time, an Associated Press investigation showed that “a vast array of pharmaceuticals—including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones—were found (albeit in minute quantities) in the drinking water of at least 46 million Americans,” in 24 metropolitan areas, including Detroit, Louisville, southern California and Northern New Jersey.
Today, Baylor University professors, in a study funded by the EPA, revealed that fish caught near wastewater treatment plants serving five major U.S. cities—including my Philadelphia—had residues of pharmaceuticals in their tissues, including medicines used to treat high cholesterol, allergies, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder and depression.
The report says the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are “tiny,” in fact, you’d have to eat “hundreds of thousands of fish” to receive one dose of the drug. But it also points out that “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.” Those consequences could include reproductive irregularities, the early onset of puberty, and increasing resistance to antibiotics.
These chemicals enter waterways in two ways. First, we excrete them, and they successfully pass through wastewater treatment plants. (And there as yet no standards for drugs in wastewater.) Then, some are flushed down the toilet directly when we dispose of old prescriptions. But most surprisingly enter through the first method…
The Baylor team studied tissues in rural New Mexican rivers, but these fish did NOT have these drugs in their bodies.
In addition to human impacts, scientists are searching for clues to riddles of animal abnormalities: apparently increasing numbers of creatures born with physical and sexual deformities. These chemicals may be one piece of the puzzle, especially if these drugs mimic hormones.
Findings from this first nationwide study of human drugs in fish tissue have prompted EPA to significantly expand similar ongoing research to more than 150 different locations.
Just what do we eat? And should the EPA create standards. Watch: it's coming.