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BERLIN, Sep 13 2011 (IPS) - As water grows scarcer and scarcer, the pressure to recycle it grows more intense, and though this makes good ecological sense, there is an unfortunate drawback: the drinking water system worldwide is polluted with pharmaceuticals.

Although we do not yet understand the precise effects on human health, animal studies suggest that we are heading towards a new crisis as intake and metabolism drugs, antibiotics, and synthetic hormones for birth control end up in our surface and drinking water. Many of the compounds are so persistent that thousands of tons flow annually into the sea and then accumulate in the fish we eat. When it comes antibiotics, the problem is exponential, since more than 50 percent of the world’s consumption is not for treating people but making it possible to grow cows fat faster, which concentrates the medicine in their flesh. As for fish, we had thought it was the absorption of only heavy metals that was alarming, but the problem is bigger. Pharmaceutical products are known to cause reproductive, mutagenic, and teratogenic effects in water life. Prozac residue causes male mussels to spawn; anti-hypertension drugs impact the reproduction of crayfish and crabs. The infiltration of antibiotics and anti-bacterials increases the resistance of bacteria, which has serious implications for treating infections in the future. Anti-tumor drugs used in chemotherapy are known to have mutagenic and teratogenic effects. And there is increasing evidence of endocrine disruption in wildlife even when exposed only to trace levels of synthetic hormones.

Painkillers, like Ibuprofen, and even nicotine are not removed during the drinking water filtration process. We had thought we had finally addressed the adverse effects of second-hand smoke by prohibiting smoking in public places. Now it seems that we are all smoking anyway -through our drinking water! The City of Antwerp has more cocaine in its water than any other city in the world. Could we even be accused of doing hard drugs simply by hydrating our body?

Conventional water treatment plants are incapable of removing pharmaceuticals. Studies demonstrate that coagulation, sedimentation, and filtration eliminates only 10 to 12 percent of the active ingredients. This portion accumulates in sludge, which is often recycled as a soil additive, exposing our food chain once more to unwanted ingredients. Activated carbon filtration and ozone treatment can remove up to 75 percent, which exposes the population to the remaining 25 percent.

As water continues to be recycled -and re-recycled into closed loops- at the same time as consumption of both prescription and over-the-counter drugs increases, society and the world’s ecosystems are being exposed to a broad cocktail of pharmaceuticals at excessive levels. It would not be surprising if entire sections of the population started suffering from mood swings and shifts in their sexual behavior. Officials in Philadelphia discovered 56 pharmaceuticals in their treated drinking water. Nearly 20 million residents of Southern California are exposed to anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety drugs. San Francisco’s drinking water contains a synthetic and hard-to-break-down sex hormone. Unfortunately, bottled water is filtered drinking water in a wasteful plastic container, and most water bottlers do not test for pharmaceuticals either. Even our home filtration systems only reduce and do not eliminate drugs. Your only salvation is your own well from a watershed you control, which is available to very few indeed.

It is time to revisit health care and the search for effective medicine. Undoubtedly, in the wake of these legitimate concerns, traditional and natural medicine becomes more relevant than ever. The Bhutanese constitution’s guarantee of traditional medicine to all citizens is a visionary provision.

As we are spreading medicine indiscriminately throughout the environment and society, it is urgent to provide new shelf-life guidelines to the pharmaceutical industry. Just as it took decades to realise that plastics do not disintegrate but form massive junk islands in the Pacific Ocean, so it will take time for the authorities to recognise that pharmacological products do not degrade but rather accumulate in bodies of water. But there is an important difference: mood-swing chemicals and chemotherapy residue, unlike plastic, are invisible, which will make it even harder to convince people of the extent of their impact.

The typical response from the economic interests concerned is that there is no scientific proof that humans are affected. The problem is that when definitive proof is made available, it will be too late. There is no remedy except waiting until these molecules degrade. The danger is not a single pharmaceutical product but rather the cocktail of accumulated drugs, which could cause irreparable damage.

In response, it seems that three parallel initiatives are needed. First, instead of only discovering new drugs and inventing new delivery methods, research must devise triggers to disassemble these man-made molecules. Second, water treatment plants and water bottling facilities must be equipped to measure the presence of pharmaceuticals. It is not possible to require every city install a reverse osmosis facility, which can effectively remove 95 percent. Such an end-of-tube solution would dramatically increase the cost of water. Instead of passing the cost on to the taxpayer, the design of the product must change.

A third step would be finally focusing on tackling the root causes of this massive consumption of pills. The time has come to find a healthier, happier, and less stressful way of living. Whereas the first two solutions can be implemented by any responsible government, the third one is a decision we have to make ourselves, before it is too late. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Gunter Pauli, author of the Blue Economy and entrepreneur.

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