Drugs in the Water

The San Francisco Chronicle’s business section recently carried a series on the business of bottled water. It’s a very big business indeed: $11 billion in sales and 8.3 billion gallons consumed in the United States alone during 2005. According to the article, that’s “more than any other commercial beverage except soda. More than milk. More than coffee. More than beer.”

The journalist who wrote the series of articles, David Lazarus, seems taken aback that the product itself is tap water that’s been treated. $7.50 per gallon for treated tap water? Because it allegedly tastes better, even though a taste test revealed that few people could actually tell the difference between the top brands and plain tap water? Oh foolish consumer!

Far be it from me to say nice things about the food (sic) giants Coca Cola and PepsiCo, the two largest manufacturers of bottled water: Dasani (Coke) and Aquafina (Pepsi). $7.50 per gallon does seem a stiff price for tap water. However, it is not as the article says that “the water undergoes a variety of filtration treatments to remove chlorine and most dissolved solids.” The water is purified using carbon and reverse osmosis filtration.

Tap water might need it. Tap water has bioactive chemicals that are added to it—some unintentionally (for example, fuel additives like MTBE) and intentionally (for example, fluoride). Filtration with carbon combined with reverse osmosis is the best way to remove these substances, as is distillation.

Financially, consumers would be smarter if they installed a reverse osmosis filtration system at home for drinking water and for water used for cooking. These systems usually include carbon filtration. Then they could buy a reusable water bottle to tote around their home grown purified water. Although reverse osmosis systems cost a few hundred dollars, an average year’s worth of bottled water would go quite a way toward paying for it. On average, Americans drink 28 gallons of commercial bottled water each year. At $7.50 per gallon, that’s $210 in potential savings in one year. The economics are a little more complex than that, but you get the idea.

Reverse osmosis filtration systems also help remove some of the pharmaceuticals that end up in your tap water. Yes, there are drugs in the streams and groundwater that ultimately supply us with our tap water. Researchers have already found biological effects from pharmaceuticals in streams where municipal wastewater systems dump effluent from their treatment processes.

Let’s review. Your liver doesn’t read labels. As far as it’s concerned, the drug you just took, a chemical fabricated in a lab and not found in nature, is a poison. So your liver tries to send the chemical out. “Out” usually means into a toilet, which empties its contents into a system that takes it to a waste treatment plant somewhere. Let us not forget the spilled or intentionally discarded pharmaceuticals that are dumped down the drain or toilet.

No one has yet studied the actual effect of drug tainted waters on human health. There might be none. By the time a pharmaceutical has swirled down the drain, through the waste treatment process, swirled again down a stream or percolated into the soil, found its way to the intake of a municipal water system, and finally out your faucet and into your glass, it might be transformed into something utterly harmless.

Or not.

One of the few researchers in this area, Christian Daughton, has recommended a cradle-to-cradle approach to this problem. Some examples of solutions include drugs designed to degrade quickly or that require lower doses, use of traditional medicines that have chemistry that is found in nature and so would degrade more readily, use of individualized therapy that again reduces usage, packaging that minimizes waste of doses, and processes for the return of doses that are not used.

In the meantime, drinking purified tap water seems like a good alternative to being an involuntary participant in a medical experiment.