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Drugs in Our Drinking Water?

Experts put potential risks in perspective after a report that drugs are in the water supply.

Are certain people -- say pregnant women, children, the elderly -- more sensitive to the potential effects of drugs in the drinking water supply?

Again, it's not known, Janssen says. "We know that kids, including babies and toddlers, as well as fetuses, are more susceptible to environmental exposures because their bodies are still developing and their exposure on a pound-per-pound basis is higher. And they lack the detoxification system adults have. So it is not unreasonable to expect they would be at higher risk."

Can boiling tap water get rid of the medicines, or would drinking bottled water solve the problem?

Boiling will not solve the problem, Janssen says. And forget bottled water as a way to escape the low levels of drugs found in some public water supplies. "Twenty five percent of bottled water comes from the tap," she says, citing an NRDC report.

Labels on bottled water, regulated by the FDA, help consumers know what they are getting, says Stephen Kay, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association. If bottled water companies use water from municipal sources and do not treat it further to purify it, the FDA views the source as legitimate but requires the label to state that it is from a municipal or community water system.  Bottled water companies that use municipal source water, but then treat and purify it by using reverse osmosis, distillation, or other processes can label it as such using terms such as "purified water" or "reverse osmosis" water.

Home filtering systems such as reverse osmosis may reduce the medication levels, says Timothy Bartrand, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Drexel University, Philadelphia, who participated in a National Science Foundation workshop to develop a drinking water research agenda.

"An activated charcoal system will remove some pharmaceutical drugs but not all," Janssen says. "A reverse osmosis system can also remove some."

What else can consumers do to find answers or improve the situation?

Contact your local public utilities and ask them what pollutants they test for in drinking water, Janssen says, as one way to raise awareness of the problem. Contacting your senator or congressman is another.

When disposing of expired or unneeded medications, don't flush them, Rudzinski says. Instead, mix unused or unwanted drugs with coffee grounds or kitty litter, something that will be unpalatable to pets. Put the mixture in a sealed container so it's not accessible to children or pets and put the mixture in the trash.

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Reviewed on March 10, 2008

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