Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sedatives and Sex Hormones in Our Water Supply

By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!. Posted March 25, 2008.

An AP journalist who helped lead an frightening investigative report considers the dangers posed to the country's drinking water.

Editor's Note: Read more about this topic on AlterNet from Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch.

AMY GOODMAN: Saturday was World Water Day, and the United Nations estimates close to 1.5 billion people around the world do not have access to clean drinking water. What about here in the United States?

The Associated Press has conducted an extensive investigation into the drinking water in at least twenty-four major American cities across the country, which contain trace amounts of a wide array of pharmaceuticals. The amounts might be small, but scientists are worried about the long-term health and environmental consequences of their presence in the water supplies of some forty-one million Americans.

The five-month investigation of sixty-two metropolitan areas and fifty-one smaller cities found that many drinking water suppliers, including bottled water companies, do not even test for the presence of drugs in the water. The utilities that do test for drugs often don't tell customers about the trace amounts of medications in their water.

Jeff Donn is a National Writer for the Associated Press and one of the reporters who led this investigation. He joins us now from Boston.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeff. Why don't you start off, why you conducted this extensive five-month investigation? What tipped you off?

JEFF DONN: We were aware that there was some research, mostly in specialized technical journals, scientific journals, suggesting that there was this group of emerging contaminants, and one of the contaminants of most concern were pharmaceuticals in very low amounts. They've only been able to measure these kinds of pharmaceuticals well in the last ten years or so.

And we also were wondering -- I'm a former medical writer -- we were also wondering about pharmaceuticals in particular as a contaminant, because as opposed to traditional contaminants that you find in the water, pharmaceuticals are actually designed to interact with your body. So we wondered if that would pose special concerns and special problems.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you conduct the investigation? How did you find out what's in the water supply?

JEFF DONN: Essentially, we did two things. We checked scientific research, surveys that have been done already that they appeared in a variety of scientific journals. And then we did our own survey, and that's what you were referring to earlier in your introduction. We surveyed sixty-two large water utilities. Those are the people who bring drinking water to your homes and businesses. We also called fifty-one, fifty-two other smaller utilities, utilities in smaller cities, and we essentially asked them: What's been detected in your water? What kind of pharmaceuticals have been detected? And how do you treat your water? And does it cleanse your water of these pharmaceuticals?

AMY GOODMAN: So, who tests, and who doesn't? It seems like it broke into three categories: some test and know, some cities; some simply don't test for drugs; and some do test and don't reveal it.

JEFF DONN: That's right. About roughly half do test. And that was somewhat of a surprise. That really wasn't known before, because, like I said a moment ago, these pharmaceuticals in the water are contaminants that people weren't very well aware of and that have barely been reported on at all for the general public. It turns out that about half of the utilities either have tested themselves or are aware that someone else has tested. The USGS and other agencies, health departments also do some testing. And the vast majority that tested did find some pharmaceuticals in their water in these very low, trace amounts.

AMY GOODMAN: So let's talk about some of the examples: New York, traces of sedatives; Philadelphia, fifty-six drugs in the water; Denver, unspecified antibiotics; Las Vegas, I don't think I can even pronounce all of these drugs; Long Beach, California, unspecified drugs; Louisville, Kentucky, ibuprofen; Milwaukee, one drug; Minneapolis, three. Talk about what you found the most surprising, and go through the country, if you will.

JEFF DONN: I think what's most surprising is the range of drugs that are found and how widely dispersed these drugs are. It's not -- you might think it's just in the Northeast or it's just in California, it's just in population centers -- that's not true. There were places in the Midwest, where these kinds of drugs were found at all. There were some relatively less populated places than other places, where these drugs were found, as well. That's somewhat surprising. The range of drugs is somewhat surprising. Like you said, it's psychiatric medications, it's the antibiotics, it's pain relievers.


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Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!

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