THE BLOG
04/09/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Are You Drinking Drugs?

An EPA study released earlier this year found trace residues of at least 25 different drugs in drinking water. Scientists examined samples from 50 wastewater plants and tested for 56 different drugs; they found medication to treat high blood pressure was found in the highest quantities, but over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and prescription drugs such as hydrocodone were also found.

This makes sense, considering a 2013 Mayo Clinic study that found 70 percent of Americans now take prescription drugs, compared to 48 percent just five years ago. The drugs get into our water when we excrete them or flush old drugs down the toilet.

But what is the impact on our health? And how can we avoid them in the first place?

Because the pharmaceuticals register in such small amounts -- measured in parts per billion, in some cases -- health officials aren't worried about the risk to humans. But some are concerned about their effect on plants and wildlife, especially fish. In fact, last year the FDA denied a petition that would have required pharmaceutical companies to do a more thorough analysis of how drugs in wastewater will affect aquatic life.

Scientists have been measuring pharmaceuticals in the water supply for more than a decade, after fish were found to have both male and female characteristics linked to oral contraceptives.

But is bottled water any better for your health? Not at all. In fact, it could be worse. Here's why:

1. A Natural Resources Defense Council report found that 25 percent of bottled water is actually filtered tap water.
2. Although they now must label bottled water from municipal sources, manufacturers aren't required to regularly test their water -- or disclose what they find in it -- unlike tap water, which is tested weekly by the EPA.
3. Many plastic water bottles contain hormone-disrupting chemicals like BPA, which can leach into water.
4. Bottled water is expensive -- ringing up as much as $50 per month for a family of four.

A much better bet is filtered tap water. Here's how to do it right:

1. Find out what's in your water: Contact your local utility for a water-quality report, call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) or use EWG's National Drinking Water Database. (This is a great and easy-to-use tool, but because it was last updated in 2009, it may be out of date.)
2. Find a filter that addresses pharmaceutical residues as well as toxins: Activated charcoal filters remove some drugs, as well as lead and toxic chemicals; reverse osmosis filters cost a bit more but address drugs and lead, as well as substances that carbon can't, such as arsenic, chromium and perchlorate. EWG's Water Filter Buying Guide is a great resource to figure out the best water filter for your family.
3. Whatever filter you're using, reduce your exposure to lead in pipes by using cold water for cooking, and run the water at the tap a few minutes before use.
4. Change your filter! Make sure you are following manufacturers instructions and scheduling changes that keep your water filtered.

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