Troubling Substances in Our Drinking Water

We all know how important it is to drink enough water every day for good health. There has been debate on where that water should come from (bottled, filtered, or tap); however, a new complication has arisen. There is increasing evidence that the water supply has more substances in it than previously known. The dangers of this contamination are not yet fully understood, but it is a problem that if left unaddressed will only worsen over time.

Medication in the Water Supply

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According to data gathered in a study by the CDC from 2007 to 2010, almost half the people in the US took at least 1 prescription drug in the past 30 days. Ten percent of those in the study used 5 or more prescriptions in the past 30 days. This is a notable level of pharmaceutical consumption, yet it is information that most Americans would not find all that surprising. As modern medicine has advanced, the use of medications has increased accordingly.

However one views this trend, there are some very real consequences to this level of consumption. These drugs are not completely absorbed by the people who take them. Traces of these pharmaceuticals make their way beyond the user and into the water supply through elimination. Not only do these chemicals wind up in the water supply, but there is no current effort to remove them during treatment before the water is consumed by the public.

A New Problem

Since the rise in popularity of bottled water, there has been scrutiny placed on the quality of tap water, and generally that supply has been found to be of extremely high quality. People wanted to know if there were any reason to spend so much money on water when the stuff coming out of their taps appeared to be fine. From the Mayo Clinic to CNN, the results all came back the same: in general, tap water was just as safe as bottled water. Tap water is regulated by the EPA, and all municipalities must meet rigid standards for safety. As a result, the country can almost always rely on its tap water for safe hydration, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

This is when the issue of pharmaceuticals enters. This is not a problem that regulators foresaw when they designed the requirements for processing tap water. There is no general system for detection or removal of these pharmaceutical substances from the water. What will the results of this increase in chemicals in the drinking water be if there is no detection and removal?

Pharmaceuticals of all types can be found in the drinking water, although reportedly only in small amounts. These drugs include mood stabilizers, anti-convulsants, antibiotics, and sex hormones. The Associated Press says that these substances currently are only being detected in very minute amounts, measured in parts per billion or even trillion. Such small amounts are nothing approaching an actual dose of the chemical that a doctor would prescribe a patient. However, there is no doubt that the amounts will likely grow, and that there is no clear understanding of the effects even minute doses have on people over an extended period of time.

Where Are They Found?

The Associated Press completed a comprehensive investigation into the issue of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, testing 28 major metropolitan areas and asking for data on 35 watersheds where much of the country’s water supply originates. The organization discovered that 24 of the metropolitan areas tested positive for some form of pharmaceutical (often more than one), and that 28 of the 35 watersheds also tested positive. From this initial study, it alarmingly appears that most drinking water in the country can be assumed to have some sort of pharmaceutical contamination.

What Is Being Done About It?

The federal government actually has no policies in place concerning the presence of these drugs in the nation’s water supply. Less than half of the water providers contacted by the Associated Press performed any testing for pharmaceuticals, and those that did test sometimes looked for only a few different substances. The news organization also contacted 52 smaller water providers to determine how smaller communities were addressing the issue. There were only 2 in Texas and 2 in Missouri that actually looked for drugs in the water.

Scientists are not certain what the results of this type of contamination will be. The amounts are small and there have been few studies performed on the effects of this kind of contamination. However, the public should be aware of what is in the drinking water. It is a problem that needs to be addressed by government regulators and the scientific community alike.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therapeutic drug use. CDC website. Updated May 14, 2014.
  2. Donn J, Mendoza M, Pritchard J. Pharmawater I. Associated Press website.
  3. Kelly D. Is bottled water safer? CNN website. November 27, 2013.
  4. Nelson JK. Is tap water as safe as bottled water? Mayo Clinic website. May 21, 2012.