NPR logo Coming Right Up: A Tall Glass of Refreshing, [Anesthetizing ?] Water

Coming Right Up: A Tall Glass of Refreshing, [Anesthetizing ?] Water

What's on tap?

What's on tap? Source: good_day hide caption

toggle caption Source: good_day

The AP reports 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." If you live in the Passaic Valley, you're probably ingesting some carbamazepine. Who knew that there was estrogen and a mood stabilizer in New York City's famous tap water? (I didn't).

The fine print on this story: scientists say that there are only trace amounts of pharmaceuticals. "Trace" is a fancy science term for "very, very, very, very, very small." (It might even be smaller than that). Still, it does make you pause. Doesn't it?

So, as Mike Nizza, of The Lede, asked, "There Are Drugs in Drinking Water. Now What?" Well, we'll try to answer that question today. Joan Rose, a water researcher at Michigan State University, will explain the AP report and put us at ease. We hope. If you have questions for her, leave 'em here.



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I have been distilling my own tap water for drinking so I don't have to buy bottled water. Is this effective in removing the pharmaceuticals from the water?

Sent by Margot | 3:47 PM | 3-10-2008

Please visit

for information on a successful regional disposal program for unwanted medications.

Sent by mark steingraeber | 3:56 PM | 3-10-2008

I would like to add clarity to a comment a caller made regarding presricption drug disposal. Mixing with coffee-grounds or kitty-litter is to make them unappealing should curious hands find them.
It is important to land-fill them versus flush them because a waste-water treatment plant generally retains the water it receives for about 24 hours during which microbes are given an opportunity to degrade what comes their way. As one can imagine, microbes won't do too well with anti-biotics! These compounds then end up in the receiving waters.
Landfilling, however, fosters a greater diversity of organisms (both micro and macro), and even if the liner leaks, it would take many weeks or months for solutions to migrate to groundwater. Further there are organic compounds and clay soil particles that are likely to strongly sorb the antibiotic chemicals preventing them from migrating into groundwater.
So please throw out you expired (presription or over-the-counter) drugs! And plese Do NOT flush them!! Thank you.

Sent by Andrew Sabalowsky, PhD Environmental Engineering | 4:07 PM | 3-10-2008

I heard a story about this topic several years ago when psychotropic medications were found in a river in Georgia.

Ask any Director of Nursing that works in a Skilled Long Term Care facility what he/she does with unused medications, and you will hear "we flush them." Millions of unused medications are flushed down the commode each month because the medications in most cases cannot be returned to the distributing pharmacy. I have heard reasons such as "Medicare, Medicaid, and Insurance Companies have already paid for the medications, and if pills are returned, then the pharmacy will have to offer a credit to the government agency or insurance company, or if the pharmacy cannot do this, then they may be accused of Insurance Fraud." The revenue has already been realized. Even if the medications are packaged in "unit dose packaging" (single-pill packs on a "bingo card") and haven't been touched by human hands, they STILL cannot be returned.

Ask "why don't we recycle the medications" or "couldn't we donate these to someone that can't afford these or a third world country" and you will have the State Board of Pharmacy giving you the hairy eyeball because the medications are labeled by a licensed pharmacist.

It is a huge racket. Just remember--- any medications that are found in ground water have already been paid for, and there is a high likelihood that Medicare, Medicaid, or an Insurance Company was billed for it (which adds to the overall cost to the consumer). An added bonus- the pharmaceutical manufacturer offers pharmacies rebates if a certain number/quota of pills are sold each year.

And we scratch our heads and wonder what to do about spiraling Medicare and health care costs...

Sent by John | 6:46 PM | 3-10-2008

As there are several pharmaceutical drugs detected in the water, what about HIV or other viruses, is there also a risk of these illnesses and diseases transferring to drinking water putting millions at risk?

Sent by Patty Weber | 11:09 PM | 3-10-2008

Does hormonal birth control always stay in the earth's system once produced/taken? I have heard hormonal birth control once out in urine stays in the Earth's systen and all living things. I do not know if this is a rumor or true?

Sent by Mary M | 9:40 AM | 3-11-2008

Hello, Ive been hearing that the water contains trace amounts of drugs that have somehow made there way from the human body via urine or no.2's through waste processing plants. These processing plants then reales the processed waste containing these drugs into the ocean, well atleast they do where I live in australia. So can anyone explain to me how the sea water gets back to the fresh water dams, it cant via rain, considering all chemicals have different evapouration rates etc. So it seams to me someone is putting the drugs in the water on purpose? why?

Sent by ian | 1:51 AM | 3-13-2008