Water, Water Everywhere, But Not a Safe Drop to Drink?
It’s been said that what we don’t know won’t hurt us.
Unfortunately, when it comes to toxins found in the water we drink every day – including bottled water – what we don’t know could prove potentially lethal.
According to the first-ever study of pharmaceuticals in America’s drinking water, published in 2008 by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, traces of pharmaceuticals and caffeine were found in 24 of the 28 metropolitan water supplies tested.
The six drugs most commonly found include the pain medications ibuprofen and naproxen (found in Aleve); the anti-convulsive carbamazepine, used as a mood stabilizer to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorders; the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole, used to treat urinary tract and other infections in humans and animals; the cattle antibiotic monensin; and the disinfectant triclocarban, commonly found in antibacterial soaps.
Traces of antidepressants, antacids, synthetic hormones from birth control pills and a wide variety of other medications also were found in our drinking water. The common drugs we take (and use on animals) are flushed into wastewater every day, where they become part of water supplies downstream. Most water treatment plants are incapable of removing these trace contaminants from our drinking supplies.
Although health officials contend that the minute parts-per-trillion quantities of the waterborne hitchhikers we drink pose no immediate public health threat, there is growing concern over their long-term effects, particularly on those with autoimmune disorders and adolescents nearing puberty.
There is good reason for alarm. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 84,000 chemicals in use in the United States today in everything from air fresheners to rocket fuel. Of these, roughly 17,000, or nearly 20 percent, remain secret to consumers, protected by a loophole in the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act that exempts companies from disclosing chemicals that they consider “trade secrets”.
In most cases, these chemicals are included in perfectly well-intentioned products. Take the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE), a lubricant used to keep missiles clean and ready during the Cold War. In high concentrations, TCE was found to cause nervous system problems, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma and death, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. TCE contaminated the groundwater of at least 63 missile sites. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will cost $400 million to undo the damage. Unfortunately, there is no way to undo the damage to victims of TCE.
Given that about 700 new chemicals are introduced annually, there’s more than 100 new substances entering our environment as “trade secrets” which we are allowed to know absolutely nothing about! In addition, because no one has studied the long-term effects of these chemicals’ impact on something as basic as our drinking water, there is no way to know whether they are slowly killing us in the process.
What can be done?
Options are limited at the treatment level. Chlorine, the weapon of choice to treat waterborne contaminants, does not neutralize pharmaceuticals, nor does boiling, since the drugs are neither volatile chemicals that would vaporize when heated nor biological organisms that would be killed. Home faucet filters and reverse osmosis systems have not been proven effective either.
Studies show that ozone water treatment, a process used by some bottled water distributors to convert tap water to “purified” drinking water, would be most effective. Unfortunately, such systems are costly and may not be practical at the municipal level. Ultimately, the answer may lie in stricter controls and more disclosure on potentially hazardous chemicals.
The White House and environmental groups continue to press Congress to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to place the burden on manufacturers to prove that a substance should remain secret. They also want to lift the veil of secrecy so that federal officials can share confidential information with state and local health officials about substances that could pose a threat to the public.