The emerging issue of pharmaceuticals in water. By Ian Richler, Canadian Water Treatment
As Canadians become increasingly medicated, pharmaceutical drug residues are turning up in our drinking water supplies, with unpredictable repercussions for both the environment and human health.
So says a provocative new report, There Is No ‘Away’: Pharmaceuticals, Personal Care Products, and Endocrine-Disrupting Substances: Emerging Contaminants Detected in Water, published by the well-respect4e environmental think tank Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy.
More than 326 million medical prescriptions were filled in Canada between July 2—1 and August 2002, and the evidence from the A. S, suggests that licit drug use is rising among all age groups, according to the report. When unused pills are flushed down the sink or toilet, they end up in municipal water treatment systems that are not designed to filter them out. When they are thrown into the garbage, they may seep from landfills into groundwater.
Another way pharmaceutical residues can enter the water is by way of excretion: between 50 and 90 % of the active ingredients in drugs are not absorbed by the body. And it is not just drug use by humans that is to blame. Farm animals are routinely given antibiotics, growth hormones and other veterinary pharmaceuticals. These eventually end up in water supplies by way of agriculture runoff.
Although there has been very little testing to determine how much of these residues are lurking in our drinking water supplies, the report suggests the problem is widespread: “It is reasonable to assume … that pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants are widely present in the streams, lakes, rivers, and groundwater n the densely populated regions of the country.” The report makes it clear, however, that the concentrations of these residues found in water have been tiny: “For most drugs, usually prescribed in doses ranging from several to several hundred milligrams, a person would have to drink thousands or even millions of litres of surface water to ingest an amount comparable to that in one pill.”
The report notes that there is much scientific uncertainty about what these residues mean for ecosystems and human health. Endocrine-disrupting substances such as hormones and birth control pills are particularly worrisome: “In humans and other large mammals their health effects are not well understood. In fish, birds, and other wildlife, effects have included reproductive impairment or failure, deformities, and feminization.” The report cites a recent study conducted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in northern Ontario. When estrogen was added to a pristine lake in levels comparable to those found downstream of wastewater treatment plants, fish developed reproductive problems and their population collapsed. While acknowledging that the evidence is sketchy, the report suggests that increased exposure to hormones may help account for the rising incidence of certain types of cancer in humans. “
The report concludes with a number of recommendations for addressing the issue of emerging contaminants. Some of these, such as increasing scientific research, developing new water treatment technologies, and implementing product stewardship programs for the return of unused drugs (such as the program already in place in British Columbia), may well be on the horizon.
Others are likely to be more controversial. In particular, the recommendation to cut down on the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in farm animals, as well as the recommendation to support organic agricultural production, are sure to face resistance from the agriculture industry. It must e asked whether any regulated changes to farming would lead to higher production costs being passed on to consumers in the form of more expensive food. In this sense it will be important for policymakers not to lose sight of the potential benefits of animal (and human) drugs. As Cass Sunstein, a renowned law professor and a leading critic of the “precautionary principle: on which the report implicitly relies, has observed, “Advocates of precaution often emphasize the costs associated with a product or process, without seeing that it may have benefit as well.”
Although CIELAP is not the only one thinking about this topic – the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario identified pharmaceuticals in water as a “developing issue” in his latest annual report and Health Canada is currently reforming the process for assessing the environmental effects of pharmaceuticals and other products regulated under the federal Food and Drugs Act – it seems clear that the discussion has barely begun. This could become one of the trickiest water policy debates of the next few years.


Drink your water get your drugs and antibiotics. That dos’ent sound right, does it?  Welcome to 2011 where a big science experiment is taking place. Do most people ever question what is in their water? Do they hope its clean and get on with their day? Do you know that in some cities water and waste water are tested for illegal drugs to find criminals..! Its there only some people want to find it…..


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