Drugs In Our Drinking Water

Vernon Coleman

For a quarter of a century I have been arguing that the drinking water from our taps is now unsafe to drink because it contains pharmaceutical residues. People who drink tap water are drinking second-hand drug residues. (There is more on this in my books Food for Thought, How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You and Superbody.)

The basic problem is that after a drug is swallowed much of the compound is excreted in urine and will end up contaminating drinking water. So when you turn on your tap you get bits of old contraceptive pill, antibiotic and tranquilliser in your nice sparkling glass of apparently clean drinking water. You can't see the drug residues, of course. And the water companies can't get them out.

From time to time newspapers and magazines around the world discover some new research showing that male fish are changing sex in drug polluted rivers (it is, of course, the female hormones from contraceptive pills and hormone replacement therapy which cause this particular problem) but once they realise the size of the problem they soon back off and forget about the story.


It was back in 1982 - in a column I was writing in a medical journal - when I raised the question of whether or not public drinking water supplies could be polluted with female hormone residues which might affect the development of male babies.

I tried to get television and radio journalists to take up the problem. And I tried to interest politicians in the topic too. But although many were horrified by the idea all soon decided that it was far too controversial a subject.

`It'll frighten people far too much!' was the common view. However, it wasn't just the possibility of female hormones - residues from the contraceptive pill - which might be causing problems which worried me.

At the time when I first wrote about this subject I was so alarmed by what I had discovered that I spent over a year doing research before I wrote the article and my fear was built on several pieces of information.

* Fact one: More and more people are taking increasingly powerful medicinal drugs such as antibiotics, painkillers, tranquillisers, sleeping tablets, hormones (particularly those in the contraceptive pill) and steroids. Huge numbers of people take drugs every day. Not many people go through a whole year without taking at least one course of tablets. Half of the population will take a prescribed medicine today (and tomorrow and the day after that). And on top of the prescribed drugs there are all the non-prescription drugs that are taken - pills bought over the chemists' counter and taken day in and day out.
* Fact two: Many drugs are excreted in the urine when the body has finished with them. For example, up to 75% of a dose of a tranquilliser may be excreted in the urine. With other drugs the figure may be as high as 90%. Some drugs which are degraded can chemically react with the environment and become active again.
* Fact three: After going through standard purification procedures, waste water is often discharged into fresh water rivers.
* Fact four: Drinking water supplies are often taken from fresh water rivers - the same rivers into which the waste water has been discharged.
* Fact five: Water purification programmes were designed many years ago - before doctors started prescribing vast quantities of drugs for millions of patients and before the problem of removing drug residues had been thought of.

I felt that even someone with the modest, shoe sized IQ of a government minister should be able to see where all this was leading.

It seemed clear to me that anyone who turned on a tap and made a cup of tea could be getting a cocktail containing leftover chemicals from other people's tranquillisers, sleeping pills, antibiotics, contraceptive pills, heart drugs, anti-arthritis pills and so on.

Back in 1982 I wrote that: `with an increasing number of people taking drugs there must be a risk that the drinking water supplies will eventually become contaminated so heavily that people using ordinary drinking water will be effectively taking drugs. Or have we already reached that point: and are people who drink water in certain areas of the country already passively involved in daily drug taking?'

Back in 1982 no one seemed to know the answer to that frightening question.

And today I still don't know the answer.

Does anyone?

Are you an involuntary drug taker? Could you be addicted to any of the drug residues which might be in your drinking water? Could you be taking regular supplies of bits and pieces of other people's antibiotics? Are you taking contraceptive hormone leftovers? Could these drug residues be affecting your fertility? Could drug residues affect the health of any unborn children?

No one in the Government seems concerned by these questions.

I think they should be.

It may soon be too late, for evidence is already appearing to suggest that my original fears were accurate.

A report published in 1999 by the Environmental Agency in the UK reports that 57% of the roach in one river have changed sex. Chemicals in treated sewage and factory waste are blamed for upsetting natural fish hormones. The researchers found that the fish were more likely to be affected when they spent time close to a sewage outlet. They also found that fish who lived upstream (away from the sewage outlet) were much less likely to be affected. Apparently, the chemicals in sewage which are most likely to affect fish are female hormones such as oestrogens. Strangely, some scientists still seem puzzled about the source of the female hormones.

While they were studying lake water for pesticide contamination, Swiss chemists were surprised to find that the lake was polluted with clofibric acid - a drug which is used to lower blood cholesterol levels. The possibility that this could have been caused by industrial spillage was ruled out when it was established that clofibric acid is not manufactured in Switzerland. When the chemists checked other lakes and rivers they found low concentrates of the drug everywhere.

When researchers in Germany started looking for clofibric acid they found the drug in all sorts of water supplies - including tap water.

Intrigued the researchers looked harder.

And they found lipid lowering drugs, analgesics (including diclofenac and ibuprofen), beta blocker heart drugs, antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and hormones. They found all these drugs in water bodies and in drinking water. And they found that the concentrations were highest in heavily populated areas. Once they had ruled out industrial spillage the researchers realised that the drugs had come from human body wastes. Exactly what I had predicted in 1982.

No one knows what drugs can be found in U.S. drinking water. Why? No one is looking. The American Government does not monitor water supplies to see if they contain drug residues. Nor does it require anyone else to do this.

But there seems little doubt that drinking water is now heavily contaminated with drug residues. And the long term effect of all this is difficult to estimate. Minute amounts of antibiotic in drinking water can affect bacteria in many different ways. They can surely have a dramatic effect on the development of antibiotic resistant organisms.

There is not yet any evidence showing a clear link between water pollution and problems (such as fertility) affecting human beings. But the absence of any such evidence may possibly be a result of the fact that as far as I know no one has yet done any research into this issue. The research would be extremely simple to do and wouldn't cost very much. Scientists would simply count the number of people with fertility problems (or some other specific disorder) who had drunk re-circulated water, and then compare that figure with the incidence of fertility problems among people who had drunk fresh spring or borehole water. But who would want to do such research? Certainly not the water companies.

How are the drugs in your drinking water affecting your health? Is your daily cocktail of tranquillisers, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, chemotherapy drugs, heart drugs, painkillers and so on making you ill? How do all these drugs interact? Are they likely to be at least partly responsible for the way the incidence of cancer is increasing?

No one knows.

And no one in authority seems to want to know.

Maybe they are frightened to discover the truth.

Meanwhile, politicians around the world now drink spring water, at taxpayers' expense, which is bottled at source before it has too much chance of becoming contaminated.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2006

Vernon Coleman's books on this subject include Superbody, Food for Thought and How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You. All are available from the bookshop on this website and from good bookshops everywhere.