Glenn Ellis

*By now, we’ve all gotten used to fluorine and chlorine in your drinking water. No big deal for many of us.

But how do you feel about antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones in your drinking water? Associated Press conducted a five-month inquiry detected pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies of 24 of 28 major U.S. metropolitan areas.  It found that a vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

While most of the 25 cities investigated had between 1-15 detected pharmaceutical drugs in their tap water, Philadelphia water had 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems! 63 pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city’s watersheds.

The concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. But the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is raises worries among many scientists of the long-term consequences to human health. Drinking water treatment plants are not designed to remove these pharmaceutical residues.

Guess what else? This is also the water used to make sodas and other beverages at local bottling plants. So every time you pick up a can of soda and drink it, not only are you getting the dangerous chemicals intentionally added to those sodas — like aspartame and phosphoric acid — you’re also getting trace amounts of medication chemicals.

So why, and how, is this happening?

Drugs and their derivatives get into the drinking water supply because when people on medication go to the toilet they excrete whatever the body does not absorb and any matabolized byproducts. Water companies treat the waste before discharging it into rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and then treat it again before it enters the drinking water system. However, the various treatments don’t remove all traces of drugs.  And as we all know, everyone uses the toilet- including the people who take many different types of prescribed medications. And as you also know, what goes in, must come out. People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs it and it disappears, but of course that’s not the case. Estimates are that only about 20% of a prescribed medication is actually absorbed by the body. The rest is eliminated.

Perhaps it’s because Americans have been taking drugs — and flushing them unmetabolized or unused — in growing amounts. Over the past five years, the number of U.S. prescriptions rose 12 percent to a record 3.7 billion; while nonprescription drug purchases held steady around 3.3 billion.

Many drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters, tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern drinking water and wastewater treatment processes. Plus, the there are no sewage treatment systems specifically engineered to remove pharmaceuticals.

Our bodies may shrug off a relatively big one-time dose, yet suffer from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a half century, perhaps subtly stirring up allergies or nerve damage. Pregnant women, the elderly and the very ill might be more sensitive.

Theirs is some evidence that shows that adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic.

Human waste isn’t the only source of contamination. Cattle, for example, are given ear implants that provide a slow release of an anabolic steroid used by some bodybuilders, which causes cattle to bulk up. But not all the steroid circulating in a cow is metabolized. A German study showed 10 percent of the steroid passed right through the animals.

Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don’t necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry’s main trade group. The same goes for the makers of most home filtration systems.

Bottled water is not the total answer. Nearly 40 percent of bottled water is simply repackaged tap water. What’s more, there’s no government agency testing bottled water contamination from known hazards such as bacteria, synthetic contaminants, or heavy metals. While the Associated Press did not test bottled water, earlier testers have found dangerous substances such as arsenic and bromate, both known carcinogens.

No scientist can say for certain whether long-term exposure to micro doses of multiple pharmaceuticals is safe because such an experiment has never before been conducted on any population.

If trace amounts of multiple pharmaceuticals are now in the tap water supplies, it also means that any use of tap water involves the further spread of those pharmaceutical chemicals. Watering your lawn, for example, means spraying small amounts of pharmaceuticals on your lawn.

The solution? My personal opinion… you’ll need to avoid drinking tap water, period. Or, at the very least, filter it really well. Distillation is very energy intensive (which makes it bad for global warming), but it does get the water very, very clean. Other consumer-level water filters may remove some amount of pharmaceuticals, but I don’t have all the facts on that yet, so I’m not going to make any recommendations until I learn more. Stay tuned…

Remember, I’m not a doctor just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

Glenn Ellis,  is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics. His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in Fall, 2011. For more good health information, visit: