If you’ve listened to the radio or read the newspapers and online media this morning, you’ve undoubtedly encountered reports of pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs tainting tap water in major metropolitan cities around the United States. Most news outlets play it as if the concept is new. Long-time readers of Science News know that it isn’t.

I reported on the finding of a heart medicine in Berlin tap water 10 years ago and the acknowledgment by federal scientists 2 years later that they’d seen the same drug 20 years earlier in Western U.S. groundwater reservoirs that serve as a source of drinking water. And of course, there were our reports of drugs in U.S. drinking water—first in New Orleans in 2000, and then outside Atlanta in late 2001.

My main point is not to direct readers back to those earlier stories but to hope the public has finally had time to begin questioning whether pharmaceuticals coming out their kitchen taps is acceptable.

In my early reporting, I heard German chemists lament that when they came to U.S. meetings and reported findings of drugs in European waters, they encountered a disquieting silence—and apparent disinterest. During the Q&A after their talks, their North American peers asked no questions, made no attempt to corner them in the halls for additional details, and passed along no business card requesting reprints of papers on the topic.

And when I contacted an EPA official to ask what he thought of drugs turning up in sources of drinking water, he said: “Could you send me the papers? This is interesting.” I was disturbed that he needed me to point out the papers. Shouldn’t he have know about them already?

And when I queried that federal official about what he might want to do with this information, he as much as said he only planned to use if for his personal edification. EPA didn’t have enough money to handle its congressionally mandated responsibilities, he explained. So he said it was rather counterproductive to look for new problems—ones which might further strain the agency’s purse strings.

So let’s play ostrich, he seemed to say. And this stratagem appears to have worked for quite a while.

In 2000 I was asked by the National Ground Water Association to serve as a keynote speaker—addressing just this issue—at one of its specialty conferences. I felt more than a little awkward being asked to tell groundwater engineers and pollution chemists about water pollution. They’re the experts; I’m just a reporter.

But after I gave my presentation, two people came up to me with rather disturbing—if flattering—comments. One told me that he realized, after reading my first story, that the drugs that had previously shown up in U.S. water supplies probably shouldn’t be viewed as curiosities any more. If Science News was reporting on them, maybe it was time to probe them a little further—because they might just represent clues to widespread pollution. A second told me he had appended my story in Science News to a grant proposal to study pharmaceutical pollution of U.S. waters—one that had just received funding.

In fact, early in this decade, a host of new national programs began searching for—and finding—widespread pharmaceutical pollution. Basically, drugs were showing up about everywhere anyone looked. As they had in Germany a decade earlier.

Isn’t it time we finally put this on the federal research agenda—to find out whether the ubiquity of water tainted with drugs for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and more is as benign as our neglect seemed to assume it was?

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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