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Pharmaceuticals Pollute U.S. Tap Water

Immediate Release: Monday, March 10, 2008
Contact: EWG Public Affairs (202) 667-6982

WASHINGTON - A wide range of pharmaceuticals that include antibiotics, sex hormones, and drugs used to treat epilepsy and depression, contaminate drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, according to a 5-month investigation by the Associated Press National Investigation Team released today.

“Environmental Working Group's (EWG) studies show that tap water across the U.S. is contaminated with many industrial chemicals, and now we know that millions of Americans are also drinking low-level mixtures of pharmaceuticals with every glass of water,” said Jane Houlihan, EWG Vice President for Research. “The health effect of this cocktail of chemicals and drugs hasn't been studied, but we are concerned about risks for infants and others who are vulnerable. Once again, the press is doing EPA‘s work when it comes to informing the public about contaminated tap water.“

Environmental Working Group analysis shows that of the top 200 drugs in the U.S., 13 percent list serious side effects at levels less than 100 parts-per-billion (ppb) in human blood, with some causing potential health risks in the parts-per-trillion range. EWG calls on EPA to take swift action to set standards for pollutants in tap water that will protect the health of Americans nationwide, including children and others most vulnerable to health risks from these exposures.

Drug residues contaminate drinking water supplies when people take pills. While their bodies absorb some of the medication, the rest of it is flushed down the toilet. Drinking water treatment plants are not designed to remove these residues, and the AP team uncovered data showing these same chemicals in treated tap water and water supplies in 24 major metropolitan areas around the US. EWG's national tap water atlas shows tap water testing results from 40,000 communities around the country.

All of the pharmaceuticals reported in drinking water supplies are unregulated in treated tap water—any level is legal. Not only has the EPA failed to set standards for pharmaceuticals, but also they have failed to require utilities to test for these chemicals. The drug residues in tap water join hundreds of other synthetic chemicals Americans are exposed to daily, as contaminants in food, water, and air, or in common consumer products. EWG found an average of 200 industrial chemicals, pesticides and other pollutants in umbilical cord blood from 10 babies born in the U.S., indicating that our exposures to toxic chemicals begin in the womb, when risks are greatest.

Home filtering systems provide best protection for drinking water

(from Water Quality Association)

As news reports about pharmaceuticals in water circulate, here are several facts for consumers to consider (for a PDF version of this fact sheet, click here):

· Filtering systems in the home provide the highest technology available for treatment of drinking water. Less than two percent of all water consumed is ingested by humans, making these “point-of-use” systems the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

· While utilities are required to meet safety standards set by the U.S. EPA, home filtering systems act as a final contaminant barrier and can further purify water for drinking.

· While specific product performance standards have not yet been developed for pharmaceuticals, many point-of-use technologies have proven effective for some of these emerging contaminants. Nano-filtration and reverse osmosis systems removed drugs tested by the Colorado School of Mines at full-scale facilities in Arizona and California. Activated carbon, distillation, ozonation, and advanced oxidization have likewise shown promise in removing many of these contaminants. Individual manufacturers can also test products for specific pharmaceuticals if they choose.

· According to Utah State University Extension, up to 90 percent of oral drugs can pass through humans unchanged. These often then move through wastewater into streams and groundwater. It is generally cost prohibitive for utilities to use systems such as nano-filtration, long contact activated carbon, and reverse osmosis. However, these top technologies have proven successful at removing many contaminants in home water treatment systems.

· In addition to pharmaceuticals, water quality experts are examining other emerging contaminants, such as those found in personal care products and pesticides. These are often referred to as endocrine disrupting chemicals. Home filtering systems have also been proven to treat threats such as lead and mercury.




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