There is no question that the overprescribing of antibiotics has played a large role in the creation of superbugs that are difficult, if not impossible, to kill. But there is also another reason why: Antibiotics are increasingly present in drinking water around the country, meaning Americans by the millions are getting small, consistent doses without even knowing it.
In fact, the problem is so bad that in some states, like Virginia, authorities are issuing antibiotic disposal kits so that residents don't flush them down the toilet or throw them in the trash.
An investigation by The Associated Press has found that several pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, sex hormones and mood stabilizers were discovered in drinking water supplies of at least 41 million people.
The investigation found that the levels of these drugs are generally very small and far below safe dosages. But the fact that so many of these drugs, as well as over-the-counter medications, are winding up in our drinking water at all is cause for concern as experts ponder the long-term consequences to human health, AP noted.
All kinds of drugs found in nearly all parts of the country
The newswire service noted further:
In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky.
Water utilities hardly ever disclose the findings of their pharmaceutical analyses unless they are pressed into releasing the information. Some have said that's because the public doesn't really know how to interpret such findings and could become alarmed for no reason. But that's not acceptable; the public has a right to know.
As to how the drugs are getting into the water, the AP said that our bodies absorb most of the medications, but that the rest is passed through and flushed down the toilet. While wastewater is treated before it gets discharged into reservoirs, lakes or rivers, and water for drinking is filtered once more at treatment plants before being piped to users. However, most treatment systems are not capable of removing all residual drugs.
Researchers are not yet certain of the long-term risks of regularly consuming low doses of several types of medications, but recent studies have been conducted – they just haven't received much attention in the general population, even though some of the findings are alarming.
“We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously,” Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency, told the AP.
Problem is likely more widespread
Officials in Virginia aren't taking any chances waiting around for the EPA and others to measure the long-term damage to human health. In a separate report, the AP noted that Attorney General Mark Herring said 80,000 drug deactivation kits had recently been donated by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and were going to be made available to the public.
After adding some warm tap water the kits deactivate the medications, which then allows them to be disposed of safely. Officials in Herring's office said that each kit can deactivate 45 pills.
The state plans to distribute some 50,000 kits via the Virginia Department of Health. The remaining 30,000 will be given to local hospitals, police departments, non-profit groups and pharmacies.
But these kits are just a drop in the bucket, so to speak. Most Americans take some sort of medication each year, and are thus contributing residual amounts to the water.
Among key findings by the AP during its investigation:
— Philadelphia officials said 56 pharmaceuticals or their byproducts were discovered in treated drinking water after testing;
— Anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic drugs were found in a portion of treated drinking water for some 18.5 million people in Southern California;
— U.S. Geological Survey researchers analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water plant that serves about 850,000 people in northern New Jersey, finding metabolized medicine for chest pain as well as a mood-stabilizer;
— Drinking water tested in San Francisco turned up traces of a sex hormone;
— Washington, D.C.'s drinking water tested positive for six drugs (which may explain a lot.
Officials believe that the situation nationwide is likely far worse, the AP noted.
investigation by Hosted.ap.org