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Prozac in Drinking Water? Likely So

Water Treatment Plants Not Designed to Get Rid of Medications

What's Being Done? continued...

Disposal of unwanted medications is part of the problem, King says. "People are well advised not to flush them down the toilet or down a drain. Then it goes through a sewer system and eventually gets back into the environment. Inevitably there's a lot of dilution, but people are well advised not to put it down the toilet in the first place."

The EPA, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council, and the National Academy of Science are assembling a list of potential contaminants to be studied. "We want to be sure we've got as much information as we possibly can on the health risks that may be posed," King tells WebMD.

Effects on Humans May Vary

"The core problem is -- there's nothing really in the design of most treatment plants to take this stuff out," says Robert Morris, MD, PhD, an environmental health consultant and professor at Tufts University. "This is a truly daunting problem. Treatment systems were all initially designed to get rid of bacteria and viruses. They have filters and use chlorine, but that doesn't do a whole lot to get rid of chemical contaminants."

Whether these water contaminants have effects on humans is still an open question, Morris tells WebMD. "The presumption has been that the stuff gets so diluted that it won't cause a problem. Whether or not that's true is another issue. People used to think that about microbes and bacteria, and discovered they were pretty wrong about that."

The effect may vary from town to town. "This stuff is coming out of sewage treatment plants. The [size of] the plant, the amount that's coming out of it, and the size of the river or lake determine the concentration of chemicals in drinking water. So it's going to vary a lot. It may be that specific regions of the country have a worse problem."

So what are the effects over a lifetime -- or during particularly vulnerable stages such as pregnancy? "We don't really know," Morris says. "There's evidence that concentrations coming out of treatment plants have an effect on things living in the water. They're obviously going to get the highest exposure. Whether the lower exposure has an effect on humans, we don't know."

Should We Drink Bottled Water?

Bottled water is "an expensive solution, and it produces a lot of plastic that needs be disposed," Morris says. "I don't see that as an ideal solution."

If a woman is pregnant or trying to get pregnant, that's the time to be most careful -- drink bottled or filtered water, he advises. "That's especially true if your water is coming from a major river system or water source that has a lot of sewage treatment plants going into it. That's where you have to be concerned."

A healthy adult won't likely feel major effects from these drugs, adds Morris. "But boy, I'd like to see us gather more data on this. The list of chemicals being produced is huge. The mixture coming down these waterways contains many, many chemicals. We don't know how they interact. We don't know their total effect. I don't want to scare people. There's no cause for panic. But certainly there is more cause for getting more information."


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