When I heard on the radio that tests had revealed trace levels of pharmaceuticals in New York City’s drinking water, I was alarmed. I drink a lot of water, and I take it for granted that it’s safe. I assume it’s been filtered, sterilized, treated, and tested so that it’s healthy and innocuous.
The story on the radio wasn’t long and didn’t provide many details. I didn’t hear much else about it after that initial report. Yet the contaminated water stayed in the back of my mind and troubled me. The idea that anyone could unwittingly medicate him or herself by drinking tapwater conjured frightening images of steely Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
When I read an AP report about the story, I found more reason for alarm. Pharmaceuticals aren’t just in New York City’s water, they’re in the water that supplies cities around the country. I live in New Jersey, and tests found the mood stabilizer carbamazepine in our drinking water. Now that really freaks me out: psychoactive drugs in my water.
Incredibly (or predictably), the federal government has no standards and requires no testing for drugs in water. City water officials are tight-lipped about the results of their testing for various nonsensical reasons (e.g., “the public doesn’t know how to interpret the information”). Other officials have denied the presence of pharmaceuticals, only to be contradicted by independent test results. Let’s hear it for transparency and the public trust.
OK, I think, maybe I’m overreacting. We’re talking about low levels of drugs, right? On the other hand, we’re also talking about daily exposure. Do our livers like this? What kind of effects does this have on us? It sounds like we don’t know yet. But apparently lakes and rivers have drugs in them, too, and scientists have linked this situation to harmful effects on wildlife.
Maybe we should take the advice in the title of another film: Don’t Drink the Water.