Traces Of Drugs In Water: What's The Impact? | KUOW News and Information

Traces Of Drugs In Water: What's The Impact?

May 22, 2014
Originally published on June 19, 2014 3:28 am

Scientists have known for a long time that the water coming out of your faucet at home might contain traces of drugs prescribed to people you've never met.

Research shows no one is getting a full dose of say, Prozac, from drinking tap water. But scientists do wonder whether pharmaceuticals in water supplies may be having more subtle, long-term impacts on human health and aquatic life.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Katie Colaneri of WHYY reports.


  • Katie Colaneri, reporter for StateImpact Pennsylvania and WHYY in Philadelphia, covering energy and the environment. She tweets @KatieColaneri.
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Now a question. What's in your water? Scientists have known for a long time that the water coming out of our faucets might contain traces of drugs prescribed to people we've never met. Research shows no one is getting a full dose of, say, Prozac from drinking tap water. But scientists do wonder whether pharmaceuticals in water supplies may be having more subtle, long-term impacts on human health and aquatic life.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, WHYY's Katie Colaneri reports.

KATIE COLANERI: In State College, Pennsylvania, wastewater from Penn State University's treatment plant is being sprayed onto a grove of trees. Penn State graduate student Alison Franklin fills up a large, amber-colored jar with water from one of the spray heads.

ALISON FRANKLIN: It's like, oh, my token water sample.


COLANERI: Later she'll take it back to the lab and test it for two kinds of antibiotics.

FRANKLIN: I'm looking at bactrim.

COLANERI: Often used to treat urinary tract infections.

FRANKLIN: I'm also look at ofloxacin.

COLANERI: A treatment for bronchitis and pneumonia. Franklin and Professor Jack Watson want to know what will happen if those antibiotics come in contact with bacteria in the environment. They wonder if it could be contributing to a major public health problem: bacteria that have developed resistance to popular antibiotics.

JACK WATSON: "What's going on with micro-organisms that we don't want to thrive in our bodies? And are we creating scenarios in which some of those are resistant to antibiotics because they've been exposed to antibiotics for a period of time in a natural environment?

COLANERI: Franklin and Watson are several years away from finding out, and they're just one of many teams of scientists around the world asking these kinds of questions about the long-term effects of drugs in our water systems.

So how do drugs get there in the first place? Well, sometimes people flush their unused medicines down the toilet. Also traces of many drugs pass right through our bodies and down into sewer pipes and septic systems.

JOE SWANDERSKI: My name is Joe Swanderski, and I'm supervisor for wastewater services and storm water on campus. I call it the used water department.

COLANERI: The water that Alison Franklin and Professor Watson are sampling starts out here. Brown, smelly water from Penn State's sewer pipes is treated to remove nitrogen and phosphorous and chlorinated to keep bacteria at bay. In the end, the water is clear and smells much better. But Swanderski notes wastewater treatment plants aren't set up to remove pharmaceuticals.

SWANDERSKI: I learned a long time ago in chemistry there are no zeros. You're going to have a little bit of everything.

COLANERI: The question is: What is the levels of pharmaceuticals in the water, and does it pose a risk to human health? This year, the Environmental Protection Agency published what's considered to be the biggest study on this topic. EPA biologist Mitch Kostich and his team took samples from 50 large wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. and tested the water for the presence of 56 different drugs. Kostich says the results were reassuring.

MITCH KOSTICH: If you were drinking half a gallon a day over the course of a lifetime, you wouldn't be consuming enough drug residue that way to get one therapeutic dose out. That's the case for most of the drugs.

COLANERI: And that's just wastewater before it's put back into waterways and treated for drinking. So that's good news, right?

KOSTICH: I do find it comforting, but that's not to say that, you know, you could rule out every possibility of any kind of risk.

COLANERI: For instance a dozen of these drugs were found at levels that could affect fish, bugs and other aquatic life. Last year, scientists in Sweden found that low-levels of an anti-anxiety drug actually made fish less fearful and increased their appetites. So members of Kostich's team want to examine the impact on these creatures more carefully, but there are scientific limits.

KOSTICH: We can't possibly test every species out there, so it'll always be impossible to completely rule out the possibility of any effect in any organism that way. And we have a similar issue with people.

COLANERI: Kostich adds it would be difficult to study whether traces of drugs in the water may have long-term impacts on more vulnerable populations like children or pregnant women. He says it could also be unethical to test that. Another question researchers are asking is how to keep pharmaceuticals out of our water systems in the first place.

Julie Becker is a public health researcher at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. She says one way is to make sure they don't pass through our bodies so easily.

JULIE BECKER: We want to make sure that we absorb more of the drugs so when we go ahead and eliminate, we are not eliminating as many drugs.

COLANERI: Becker says in Europe, some companies are designing drugs so that the active ingredients stay in our bodies, where they're useful. But that approach could take years. In the meantime, Becker wants us to keep things in perspective.

First, our medications can be life-saving. And second...

BECKER: Let me just be very, very clear: the drinking water is safe.

COLANERI: Even so, Penn State researcher Alison Franklin tries not to think about what's in her water.

FRANKLIN: That's too detailed for me to be sitting there and just thinking about everything I'm taking in. I'm trying to think about the big picture, like long term.

COLANERI: And Franklin likes her drinking water extra-filtered.

FRANKLIN: There we go. Cheers.


COLANERI: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Katie Colaneri.

YOUNG: And Katie's story comes to us from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public media reporting project focusing on Pennsylvania's energy economy. So please stay there; we are just getting started. You are listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.