Mike Nizza at the New York Times blog, The Lede, takes note of a recent report that shows measurable levels of prescription drugs in municipal water supplies.
There are traces of sedatives in New York City’s water. Ibuprofen and naproxen in Washington, D.C. Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety drugs in southern California.
A 2,550 word article from The Associated Press is drawing attention to the widespread problem of trace amounts of pharmaceutical chemicals turning up in the drinking water supply of millions of Americans, but no one seems to know how to react. The report itself culminated with a doctor offering a tried-and-true deduction for the Ages: “That can’t be good.”
But how bad is it, exactly? The answers range in degrees of confidence and alarm, though no one was ready to predict imminent doom.
‘’We recognize it is a growing concern and we’re taking it very seriously,’’ said Benjamin H. Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency’s water chief. But the government has not established any safety limits for pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water, as it has for many other chemicals; the agency is just learning how to detect low concentrations of drugs in water, let alone assess the risk posed by them.
The American Water Works Association, a trade group representing thousands of water utilities, seemed to suggest that the problem is the testing data, not the water. A California water official warned The A.P. before it published the article that that the public “doesn’t know how to interpret the information” from the tests.
I will echo the “tried and true” conclusion of the doctor cited in the article— “That can’t be good.” Although Nizza seems skeptical, there is good reason to believe”that can’t be good” in advance of results from large clinical trials.
A drug is, by definition, a chemical compound which has, at low doses, a specific biological effect. Drugs used by humans are designed to have a specific biological effect— on humans. So here is the thing that Nizza is not getting. Tiny doses of drugs given to millions of people for many years (through the water supply) are likely to create changes in the health status of at least some of those people. No one one can say what those changes might be– and that can’t be good.
The other issue is that people are, rightly I think, quite sensitive to the purity of their water supply. For decades, the addition of fluoride to water supplies was the subject of great political conflict (conservatives thought it was a communist plot– not kidding) the irony is that we have conclusive proof that fluoridated water is a public health boon. Unfortunately it is highly unlikely that hundreds of millions of people mindlessly ingesting a random cocktail of prescription drugs (even at very low doses) is going to lead to anything other than major public health problems.
Checkout Tailspin’s full rundown of blog chatter over this one.