Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

Americans consume $983 per capita of prescription drugs a year. We would like to think that all of those drugs are used by the body, but that’s not the case. Our medicine cabinets are full of little brown bottles containing life enhancing chemicals that have a wide range of wondrous benefits. But what happens when a large fraction of those drugs end up flowing down the drain (or toilet)?

Certainly you have read that there are pharmaceuticals in our public water supply. Birth control hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics — you name it, sensitive instruments can detect it. There has been speculation that these low level chemicals are responsible for maladies from sexual dysfunction to autism, but no one really knows.

A 2012 report by the World Health Organization on pharmaceuticals in the water supply has some interesting information. It’s worth a read and I recommend you do so. Some important points from that report follow.

Now you or I might react negatively to detectable levels of birth control hormones in our water, but the authors of the WHO report downplay the danger, stating,

    “Analysis of the results indicated that appreciable adverse health impacts to humans are very unlikely from exposure to the trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals that could potentially be found in drinking-water.”

They state that concentrations of most pharmaceuticals are 1000 times below the minimum effective dosage for each compound detected. Their conclusion is perhaps valid as they, detached policy makers, consider large population effects. But how do you feel about the existence of powerful pharmaceuticals (some of them veterinarian pharmaceuticals) in your family’s water? That changes the ‘population dynamic’ a bit. None of us want our family exposed to any level of pharmaceutical cocktail, regardless the concentration.

In fact, the WHO researchers admit they don’t understand the impact of long term exposure:

    “Although current published risk assessments indicate that trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking-water are very unlikely to pose risks to human health, knowledge gaps exist in terms of assessing risks associated with long-term exposure to low concentrations of pharmaceuticals and the combined effects of mixtures of pharmaceuticals.”

As most governmental organizations do, the WHO is playing the large population odds game: If an effect cannot be tied to a cause in a large number of people, then the cause does not exist and we need do nothing. The fact is between 3% and 90% of any drug is excreted by the human body, depending on the compound (see the WHO report). Next time you are at the pharmacy, look at the shelves full of drugs and imagine half of that being poured directly down the drain. How can we ignore that?

The WHO report does have some valuable information regarding elimination of pharmaceuticals from drinking water. They surveyed tests performed by researchers in numerous studies. Generally the best value in filtration media/method is activated granular carbon:

    “Advanced water treatment processes, such as ozonation, advanced oxidation, activated carbon and membranes (e.g. nanofiltration, reverse osmosis), are able to achieve higher removal rates (above 99%) for targeted pharmaceutical compounds in various studies in the published literature.”

This is encouraging because we individuals have access to carbon filters for both small and whole-house water volumes. This means that we can protect our families from pharmaceuticals in drinking water by simply installing a carbon filter close to the point of consumption.

We must act to protect our families, and we need to realize that government will never fix this problem:

    “Conventional drinking-water quality monitoring that focuses on end-product testing is resource intensive in terms of capital investment and human resources. Coupled with an expanding list of chemical contaminants in drinking-water and water sources that may be of insignificant health concern, an overemphasis on end-product monitoring and the upgrading of treatment infrastructure is not a sustainable, optimal use of limited resources.”

Utilizing granulated activated carbon filtering in your family’s water supply is the cheapest way to prevent you and your children from being exposed to low levels of all sorts of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals.

Carbon filter warning: In reaction to this research, we swapped out the polyester filter in our water system with the same sized carbon filter. After about two weeks the kids started complaining of a strange taste to the water. Upon investigation, it was found that the rubber seal around the ends of the carbon filter cartridge was hosting a bacterial party of some sort, causing the water to taste bad. The carbon material was unharmed, but the filters were unusable in the long term due to this effect. These filters need an antimicrobial seal material to prevent this problem.