Feds Take First Step to Regulate Drugs in Drinking Water

| by NRDC

The Associated Press is reporting this week that federal regulators under President Obama are taking the first steps toward regulating drugs in the nation's drinking water supply -- a problem first reported by science writer Elizabeth Royte in "Drugging Our Waters" in OnEarth's Fall 2006 issue.

Royte tells the story of how this nation's aging population and increasing reliance on pharmaceuticals -- some elderly Americans take as many as 30 drugs a day, she writes, and prescription drug sales rose by an annual average of 11 percent between 2000 and 2005 -- leads to more drugs making their way into our lakes, rivers and groundwater. From the story:

Alarmed by data that showed trace levels of pharmaceuticals in European streams, researchers in the United States have begun to survey our nation's waterways. In 2002, the USGS published the results of its first-ever reconnaissance of man-made contaminants. Using highly sensitive assays, the agency found traces of 82 different organic contaminants -- fertilizers and flame retardants as well as pharmaceuticals -- in surface waters across the nation. These drugs included natural and synthetic hormones, antibiotics, antihypertensives, painkillers, and antidepressants.

Now that science has documented the presence of free-flowing pharmaceuticals, researchers are faced with another, far more difficult, pair of questions: What does this mean for the environment, and what does it mean for us? Early evidence of harm to aquatic organisms is giving researchers grounds for real concern.

The Associated Press followed up on Royte's reporting last year with a story that at least 51 million Americans are drinking water that contains prescription drugs -- everything from mood stabilizers to sex hormones to antibiotics. The AP report made the front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other news outlets and led to congressional hearings and investigations.

Now the AP says that government regulators are beginning to move toward dealing with pharmaceuticals as environmental pollutants. Among the signs reported by the news agency:

-- For the first time, the EPA has listed some pharmaceuticals as candidates for regulation in drinking water. The agency also has launched a survey to check for scores of drugs at water treatment plants across the nation.
-- The FDA has updated its list of waste drugs that should be flushed down the toilet, but the agency has also declared a goal of working toward the return of all unused medicines.
-- The National Toxicology Program is conducting research to clarify how human health may be harmed by drugs at low environmental levels.

To understand more about why this is so important, check out Royte's original OnEarth story, republished here.