Opinion

What's in our water?

So far, scientists have produced no evidence that trace amounts of drugs and drinking water pose an immediate threat. So, panic would be the wrong response to the recent Associated Press in-vestigation that found pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of cities across the nation.

But complacency would be a mistake, too. The full effect of continuous consumption of minute amounts of other people's drugs may not become evident for years. And there is reason to believe that the drugs already are affecting fish and some invertebrates, such as earthworms, which could be a harbinger of long-term dangers to humans.

The AP investigation seems to have produced a consensus among environmentalists, community leaders, utility directors and other public officials that scientists need to test the nation's drinking water and find a way to clean it up. After that is determined, the Environmental Protection Agency should expand the list of contaminants for which municipal water suppliers are required to test.

That list currently contains none of the pharmaceuticals that have raised concerns, such as antibiotics, anti-cholesterol drugs, mood stabilizers, anti-convulsants, contraceptives, sex hormones and a variety of antibiotics and other drugs used on animals.

Results of those tests should be made freely available to water customers. Many may decide to seek ways to remove some of the contaminants with home filtration systems.

But removing or neutralizing the pharmaceuticals on a large scale would be a much bigger challenge. Pharmaceutical industry officials have pledged to launch a new initiative with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focused on telling Americas how to safely dispose of unused medicines.

But drugs that are flushed down the toilet or sent to landfills are only part of the problem. Much of the pollution comes from human and animal waste. Imagine, for example, how much waste is produced at a cattle feed lot where animals have been treated with antibiotics and growth hormones. This affects not only lakes and rivers but also underground springs and aquifers.

Buying bottled water is not a realistic solution. Nearly half the bottled water sold in the United States comes directly from municipal taps, and the rest is not necessarily screened for pharmaceuticals.

The best approach may be to find a way to remove drugs from the water and upgrade wastewater treatment plants nationwide to enable them to do that. The alternative -- allowing generations of children to continue to consume trace amounts of drugs with every sip of drinking water -- is frightening.

IN SUMMARY

Nation needs to require testing of water supplies and find ways to filter out drugs.

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