Drug Contaminants in U.S. Drinking Supply: What You Need to Know

Both the federal government and public health experts have recently become concerned by the presence of various drug contaminants found in drinking water supplies across the United States.

While initial research indicates these drugs are present in nearly undetectable amounts, there is a risk of potential side-effects due to long-term exposure. The primary contaminants identified in these water supplies include hormones, antibiotics and other pharmaceutical drugs.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) was tasked with examining this potential concern, as they directly oversee ecological hazards across the country. Researchers from the USGS indicated many of these contaminants were present in the untreated groundwater drinking supply in over a thousand separate areas.

Though this development is troubling for many Americans, researchers declared these contaminants solely remain present in untreated water and thus may not reach the public at all. This article outlines the type of contaminants you may encounter in your drinking water and whether you are at risk of developing any side-effects through repeated exposure.

What are the primary contaminants found in my water supply?

During the study conducted by the United States Geological Survey, there were several contaminants identified in the water supplies tested across the country. The primary contaminants included the following:

  • Bisphenol-A, otherwise known as BPA, is primarily used in consumer plastics such as water bottles, plastic drinking cups and Tupperware. BPA is considered an endocrine-disrupting chemical and is harmful to the body through long-term exposure.
  • Methotrexate is an immunosuppressant commonly found in various cancer treatments. This drug is harmful if ingested improperly when prescribed for treatment purposes, though there is no direct evidence suggesting it can have the same effect when consumed in minute quantities through the water supply.
  • Sulfamethoxazole is an antibiotic typically received through a doctor’s prescription.
  • Acetaminophen is an active ingredient in leading pain killers and aspirins.

The USGS found approximately seven percent of the 844 public water supplies tested showed at least one pharmaceutical or hormone present in the aquifer. Similarly, 14 percent of the 247 domestic water supplies tested positively for one of these contaminants.

Since making this discovery, local governments have implemented new methods of testing for drug contaminants in local water supplies. In addition to the primary drugs previously listed, these methods can now detect the presence of:

  • Codeine, an opiate-based painkiller.
  • Fluoxetine, otherwise known by the brand name Prozac.
  • Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide.
  • Thiabendazole, a preservative, antifungal and antiparasitic agent.

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By expanding the ability to detect pharmaceutical, antibiotic and hormone drugs in the U.S. water supply, researchers can determine the level of these contaminants found in untreated water and how they can be removed more efficiently.

Who is at risk of exposure to these contaminants?

For this study, the USGS primarily focused on the untreated water supplies. This refers to the level of contaminants contained in the drinking water source before it is cleaned and sent through to your faucet or tap.

Before you consume your drinking water, the local aquifer must process the supply in a water treatment facility to remove any lingering contaminants and other hazardous appearing in the untreated source. Anyone who consumes water from a faucet in a major area has little risk of exposing himself or herself to these drug contaminants, as most are removed through the purification process. Any remaining traces are typically too small to cause any health issues.

If you procure your water from a domestic well on your property, you are at a greater risk of becoming exposed to potential contaminants. This is because your water supply is not run through the same purification process as public and domestic water supplies.

It is advisable in these situations to invest in a purification system for your well-water supply to ensure you are protecting yourself against exposure. It is also a good idea to routinely take samples of your well water for testing.

Researchers state the consumption of fish and other aquatic life residing in these public water supplies can increase the exposure to contaminants in some cases. While there are cleaning methods used to prepare the fish prior to sale, there is not enough evidence to determine whether there are long-term effects of consuming fish exposed to pharmaceutical drugs.

In Washington, certain mussels tested positive for the presence of oxycodone, which is considered an opioid. This is a troubling development, though one that has not been studied for a long enough period to determine the risk factor of continued consumption.

What are the potential side effects of these contaminants?

The presence of these contaminants is a point of concern for citizens. This is because scientists still do not fully understand the effects of repeated exposure to pharmaceutical drugs through both the water supply and through consuming fish and mussels from tainted water supplies.

Research conducted to determine the level and effect of drug contaminants in water is relatively new and cannot prove a direct tie to harmful side-effects through consumption. Exposure to drugs you have not received a prescription for is harmful, though the consensus indicates your level of exposure is minimal following the water purification process.

Developments in the detection process help identify the contaminants present in water. This provides researchers with the ability to determine how improvements can be made during the purification stages.

If you are concerned about the risk of contaminants in your water, invest in a water purification system for your home tap to eliminate your risk of exposure. This allows your drinking water to go through two separate methods of contaminant elimination before it is consumed by your family.

Households drawing water from a well are encouraged to install a water purification system if one is not already used. Additionally, households with well water should also install a purification system on the tap.

Water contamination is an ongoing issue and it is prevalent throughout the country. For now, the U.S. water supply is still considered safe, but consumers should be aware of the concerns and issues, as well as the ongoing efforts to provide cleaner water in the U.S.

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