OFFICE WATER-FOUNTAIN chats this week had a new subject: the quality of the water itself. The Associated Press reported that residues of human and veterinary pharmaceuticals are all too common in the drinking water of many cities. In fact, they are probably in virtually all water systems but, because there is no requirement that communities measure them, many - including Boston - do not.
There is no solid evidence yet that trace amounts of anticholesterols, mood stabilizers, hormones, and other substances are bad for human health. But there are worrisome signs. Male fish in drug-contaminated waters are being feminized and developing egg-yolk proteins, which are usually found only in female fish. Earthworms in the wild and zooplankton in laboratories are also showing the effect of pharmaceuticals. Researchers have long been concerned that residue antibiotics from human and animal use will help breed bacteria that are resistant to the drugs.
While the data are far from definitive, they are strong enough to bolster the case for systematic upgrading of the country's aging drinking-water and waste-water treatment systems. According to estimates by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the nation spends $22 billion less than it should on water infrastructure. Closing that gap will require major new appropriations for the federal government's chronically underfunded Clean Water State Revolving Fund, possibly through creation of a dedicated revenue stream for it, as several members of Congress have proposed.
Establishing precisely how pharmaceutical contamination affects humans is difficult. The adverse impacts might emerge only through years of low-level exposure, or through interactions of combinations of substances. But a scarcity of hard numbers does not mean such contamination is harmless. "We know we are being exposed to other people's drugs through our drinking water, and that can't be good," Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment of the State University of New York at Albany, told the AP.
Even buying bottled water is no solution. Nearly 40 percent of commercial bottled water comes from municipal taps in any case, and the industry's main trade group says that bottlers typically do not test for or treat pharmaceuticals in their water.
Reservoirs, underground aquifers, and watersheds all have pharmaceutical-contaminated water. One way to reduce it would be through programs for safe disposal of leftover drugs, instead of flushing them in toilets or sending them to landfills. But much of the residue comes from human and animal waste. That puts a premium on improving waste-water treatment across the country - and on making drug purification an affordable, routine part of that treatment.