What's on Tap?

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What\'s on Tap?

Every so often, you hear something that really wakes you up to an issue. This happened to me while talking to Dr. Warren Bell about drugs in our water.

Every so often, you hear something that really wakes you up to an issue. This happened to me while talking to Dr. Warren Bell about drugs in our water.

“It’s one thing to take a medicine given specifically to you to treat a condition from which you are suffering,” he says. “It’s quite another to take in a medicine given to your neighbour, or to a patient in the hospital down the road, or to someone many miles away. But that’s exactly what we do, every day, in trace amounts.”

Dr. Bell, president of the Association of Complementary Physicians of BC, believes this is an emerging environmental and health concern in Canada.

H20 at risk

In 2005 an Alberta Environment study found traces of ibuprofen, birth control pills, and steroids in samples from wastewater treatment plants in five Alberta cities. A couple of years before that, tap water tests from 10 Canadian cities found drugs in the drinking water of four. In the first Canadian study between 2000 and 2001, a team took water samples in 14 municipalities and at open water points along the Great Lakes; they found traces of painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and epilepsy and blood cholesterol drugs.

It’s a safe assumption most Canadian water supplies contain traces of one medication or another because sewage treatment plants usually aren’t equipped to filter drugs and antibiotics.

Drugs can leach from septic tanks, escape during treatment processes, and often get dumped down the sink or toilet, rather than taken back to pharmacists for responsible disposal (where possible). But a huge source of contamination is, simply, drug use. Between 50 and 90 percent of a medication’s active ingredients aren’t absorbed by our bodies and are excreted as waste.

“This is the irony,” Dr. Bell says. “It’s not people acting irresponsibly that causes the problem. It’s people doing exactly what they’re told and taking their medicine.”

Though drug traces found in water are extremely low, there is “mounting evidence” that people may be at risk from exposure, said the federal government in a 2002 conference report.

“The potential effect on humans is significant, although it’s hardly been researched,” adds Dr. Bell. Toxicity could be direct, such as hormone disruption from birth control pill traces, or the result of chemical combining. What do you get, for example, when painkillers mix with a pesticide, an industrial solvent, and a synthetic musk in perfume? Nobody knows. And how do they affect humans and wildlife? Again, nobody knows.

Using Safer Remedies

It’s a strong argument for using chemical synthetic drugs as sparingly as possible, according to Dr. Bell. He puts this principle to work in his practice in Salmon Arm, BC, where he advocates complementary and natural remedies; not only are they generally safer for his patients, they’re safer for the environment, too.

“Sometimes you don’t have a choice about taking a drug,” he says. “Be aware and ask your doctor, ‘Have you ever thought about any non-drug remedies for my problem?’ It’s a way of broadening their horizon.”

It’s also a way of preventing more drugs in our water. In case your neighbour down the road doesn’t thank you, I will in advance.

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