In a study completed last year, among the EPA's findings on what is in our drinking water supplies includes:
- Of the 72 pharmaceuticals, three (i.e., cyprofloxacin, diphenhydramine, and triclocarban) were found in all 84 samples and nine were found in at least 80 of the samples. However, 15 pharmaceuticals were not found in any sample and 29 were found in fewer than three samples.
- Of the 25 steroids and hormones, three steroids (i.e., campesterol, cholestanol, and coprostanol) were found in all 84 samples and six steroids were found in at least 80 of the samples. One hormone (i.e., 17a-ethynyl estradiol) was not found in any sample and five hormones were found in fewer than six samples.
In other words, among the many risks to our drinking water supplies is the fact that people flush lots of drugs into toilets. But beyond that, when we go to the bathroom, pharmaceutical material makes its way into our water systems. Some open questions include what the impacts of these (admittedly low) concentrations of medicines do to marine life; what do these concentrations do to the health of the general population? When I purchase water from the Monroe County Water Authority I did not sign up for a dose of coprostanol!
But the question my students will be grappling with is the following: how do the risks posed by the chemicals used in the hydro-fracking process to our water supplies compare to the risks from the medicines above? Can we come up with a ranking of things that pose risks to the safety of our water supply (both to humans and wildlife)? Where does fracking fall on that list?
Several interesting observations can come from this – and I do not mean this post to suggest that fracking is riskless. One observation is that perhaps the accumulation of all of these things (fracking chemicals, pollutants, drugs, etc.) is a bigger problem than any one of these smaller problems may be. But another is this:
I have been inundated with campaigns to ban plastic bags and plastic bottles to "save the planet" and many such campaigns do so in the name of water quality. So, how much risk does a plastic water bottle pose to the health of our water and the planet in general? How does that compare to me peeing drugs into our water system? And if we really are serious about saving the planet, ought we do a little more than go after water bottles? Why not just ban the use of drugs? Would anyone care to tell me what makes water bottles so attractive for the police guns and not some other more serious risks?