A five-month-long Associated Press investigation has found pharmaceutical drugs in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas from Southern California to New York City, which provide water to 41 million Americans. In Philadelphia, the 56 drugs found in the drinking water included "medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems," according to the AP coverage. Only Albuquerque, N.M., Austin, Texas, and Virginia Beach, Va. had clear results. That's good news for them, although it's unclear how many drugs they may have tested for.
And it's not only medications given to people that are a concern. Cattle receive a slow-release anabolic steroid to help them bulk up like weightlifters. Ten percent of that steroid passes through the animal and can wind up in waterways where downstream fish, such as fathead minnows in Nebraska, show increased steroid levels and physical changes.
So what can you do? Bottled water isn't the answer, because steps generally aren't taken to remove pharmaceuticals from it either. Expensive reverse osmosis filters may help remove drugs, but given that this is a long-term rather than an immediate threat, working to keep pharmaceutical drugs from reaching waterways is our best bet. When disposing of drugs, avoid flushing them down the toilet unless specifically directed to by your physician. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Pharmacists Association recommend the following disposal methods:
Pour pills into a plastic bag before crushing to prevent airborne particles.
Pour liquid medications into a plastic bag. (Birth control patches may be folded over and disposed of in the garbage.)
Mix kitty litter or coffee grounds in the plastic bag containing the medication.
Seal the plastic bag to reduce the risk of potential poisoning.
Place sealed plastic bag in household trash for disposal.
Remove and destroy all identifying personal information (on the prescription label) from the medication container.
Recycle empty medication container as allowed in the local recycling area or throw it in the trash.
Remember: Don't hold onto excess pills once you're finished taking them.