How Do Trace Amounts of Pharmaceuticals in the Water Affect Our Bodies?

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By: T. Adam Wichelmann
http://seedmagazine.com/content/print/troubled_water/

Have you ever thought of the consequences of drinking a "harmless" glass of water?  Most Americans would answer a strong "no".  After all, it's only water; how harmful could it really be?  According to recent studies, there might be reason to question water's seemingly harmless nature.  Scientists have found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in at least 41 million Americans water!  As prescription drugs pass through the body, they are excreted in urine and solid waste, which subsequently finds its way into Americas water.  The article explains how scientists in the 1970's hinted at a potentially negative impact of pharmaceuticals, but water and waste treatment plants were never designed to remove them.  An expert on emerging contaminants at the USGS even states that the technology to analyze for the compounds in prescription drugs has been available since we've been using pharmaceutical products.  It wasn't until 2002 that the first large scale survey was conducted by the USGS!

From further research I found that anti-biotics became popularized and used widespread in the 1930's.  With over 70 years of pharmaceuticals contaminating our waters what kind of impact are we looking at?  The USGS currently has identified the presences of over 80 compounds in American waterways.  Recent USGS studies have showed only trace amounts of drugs allowing them to argue that only long term effects can be felt.  The article, on the other hand, hints at three possible negative effects.  First, "some contaminants may become more concentrated as they move up the food chain".  They could build concentration and have a strong effect over a lifetime.  Second, the effects of mixing these drugs could be harmful.  Lastly, as antibiotics enter the waterways, bacteria could become increasingly more resistant.  This is especially scary considering we've been using antibiotics since the 1930's.

As our class has been discussing, the potential effects of technology is now felt strongly in every aspect of our daily lives, not even a glass of water is safe.  Reading this article, I am reminded of how little we know about the consequences of new technology.  Companies, meeting the societies need for technological fixes, puts countless items on the market without studying their potentially harmful effects on the environment and mankind.  If Global warming isn't enough, I think pharmaceutical drugs in the waterways should be enough to spur more Green Chemistry initiatives.  I think it's incredibly important that we look into the long term affects of our decisions and research new green technologies.

5 Comments

I strongly agree with your comments you have stated. It’s not exactly Gatorade we’re consuming, is it? I think the main problem is we don't generally care about something until it affects us. It’s scary thinking about all the compounds we are consuming in which we don’t need. How are we going to regulate what everyone flushes down their drains, and can we? I believe a worldwide effort has to start sometime. We are all in the water issue together whether we like it or not.

I feel that this recent study compares to the Grossman piece, "Out of the Frying Pan", that we read for class. The major theme for both of these articles is that we continue to develop technologies until there is hard evidence that the technology has damaging effects. The facts from this article along with the Grossman article provide surprising statistics of traces being found in water, obsolete places, and then making their way up the food chain. I think that this just shows that we need to re-evaluate our regulation standards for products before they come to market.

Response by Lilian K:

It doesn’t surprise me at all that pharmaceutical substances have been found in our supposedly “clean” water sources. For the most part, these chemicals tend to be non-biodegradable and potentially hazardous. It’s crucial that everyone be aware of the dangers that surround us; the air that we breathe, the kind of dishwashing soap we use, the kind of paint use to surface the walls in our homes…harmful substances are EVERYWHERE and impossible to eliminate. Some of the techniques used to reduce our exposure to these chemicals include the introduction of environmentally friendly alternative energy sources, the implementation of newer, more efficient recycling methods…the list is endless.

The first step to attempting to eliminate a problem is to acknowledge that the problem exists. The more aware we become of the gravity of the situation at hand, the greater the chance we have of solving it. Unfortunately, there is simply NO way to eradicate a situation like this in its entirety. Instead, we are in a better position to investigate new and efficient ways to reduce the levels of pharmaceutical drug-related substances, not only in our valuable water sources, but in our environment as a whole.

Response by Lilian K:

It doesn’t surprise me at all that pharmaceutical substances have been found in our supposedly “clean” water sources. For the most part, these chemicals tend to be non-biodegradable and potentially hazardous. It’s crucial that everyone be aware of the dangers that surround us; the air that we breathe, the kind of dishwashing soap we use, the kind of paint use to surface the walls in our homes…harmful substances are EVERYWHERE and impossible to eliminate. Some of the techniques used to reduce our exposure to these chemicals include the introduction of environmentally friendly alternative energy sources, the implementation of newer, more efficient recycling methods…the list is endless.
The first step to attempting to eliminate a problem is to acknowledge that the problem exists. The more aware we become of the gravity of the situation at hand, the greater the chance we have of solving it. Unfortunately, there is simply NO way to eradicate a situation like this in its entirety. Instead, we are in a better position to investigate new and efficient ways to reduce the levels of pharmaceutical drug-related substances, not only in our valuable water sources, but in our environment as a whole.

This is kind of a scary topic to even think about. There are so many government regulations on food products, that you'd think more precaustions would have been taken and there would be more regulations and guidelines that need to be followed. In addition, these pharmaceutical drugs that are supposed to be helpful to our health may in turn be hurting us with being in our water sources. I thin it is remarkable how little the population does know about technology and the new breakthroughs, and do agree that more steps should be taken towards green chemistry.

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This page contains a single entry by wich0053 published on October 7, 2009 10:31 PM.

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