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Reduce drug traces in tap water

One solution: Require that buyers return their unused pharmaceuticals to vendors.

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News that traces of drugs are found in tap water consumed by millions of Americans should awaken citizens and public officials. Precious water resources must be guarded and pharmaceuticals treated as hazardous waste.

Investigative reporters at the Associated Press have established that the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans from coast to coast is tainted by pharmaceuticals, albeit in minute levels far below those taken as prescriptions.

They include a medicine cabinet full of various drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, from pain medications to antidepressants to steroids. Some 56 kinds of drugs were identified in the water supply of Philadelphia alone. But the report says smaller towns and even rural areas may be affected, too. And that bottled water you're sipping? It probably wasn't tested for drug traces either.

The news report spotlights a troubling and growing form of pollution. As the series points out, the number of prescriptions written in the US rose to 3.7 billion in 2006, a 12 percent increase over five years earlier. Nonprescription drugs account for another 3.3 billion annual purchases.

While a portion of the problem comes from improper disposal of unused drugs, the majority is the result of drugs that are taken and excreted into wastewater systems. They make their way into groundwater and eventually into reservoirs. Nearly all forms of conventional water treatment, except the expensive process called reverse osmosis, fail to completely remove the drugs, the report says.

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