Friday, March 14, 2008

Water Pharms

Lately, there has been some buzz about traces of pharmaceuticals in our water supply. "...drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas -- from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky."

So, what are we taking?

"A vast array of pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones."

And how do they get there?

"People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residue."

It is kind of like second hand smoke, in that it reminds us that an individual decision to take a medication effects the whole web. So does supporting agriculture that relies on antibiotics, hormones and pesticides.

These topics coming to light raise such mixed feelings for me-- of course, we need to know that pharmaceuticals are effecting our environment and everyone's health. But the fear of everything being toxic in the environment, and the attendant efforts to avoid exposure to anything potentially harmful can get a bit out of hand. I'm trying to think of it as a really good motivator to help myself and my patients lead a heathy lifestyle and keep our livers and other elimination pathways functioning optimally. We are built to deal with a challenging environment, and our bodies can protect us from a certain amount of exposure.

This issue presents some scary unknowns, and it's natural to ask, "how can I avoid exposure to this threat to my health?" For some, the answer is to invest in a reverse osmosis water filter which will remove many of these chemicals, and drink that water. But is that a good solution for everyone?

Reverse osmosis water filters raise an ethical issue: they waste quite a bit of water, so if we choose to use them, we're creating an environmental impact. We choose to reduce our own exposure to toxins at the cost of increasing the toxicity of our environments. It's problematic, and it gets to the core of the original issue: our individual choices effect the web. We need to consider the impact of our choices and, for health practitioners like me, the implications of the recommendations we make to our patients.

"Reverse osmosis units sold for residential purposes offer water filtration at the cost of large quantities of waste water. For every 5 gallons of output, a typical residential reverse osmosis filter will send around 10 - 20 gallons of water down the drain although it may be captured and used for watering plants and lawns." (

This issue is very different from the question of eating organic foods, because organic farming nourishes the earth more than the alternative. We reduce our individual exposure to pesticides, reduce pesticide in the environment, hopefully improve the soil and possibly grow food of higher nutritional value with organics. If the food is local, pretty much everyone wins. Not so with reverse osmosis water filters.

So, these days I am making an effort to treat my body right by not loading it up with additives and chemicals or foods that irritate me, so that my body doesn't have to waste its energy defending myself from my lifestyle. I hope that I have the capacity to deal with the traces of toxins that I come into contact with everywhere. Some day, living my life will surely kill me, but until then, I don't want to live in a clean bubble at the expense of others. I want to try to make life choices that express connection with my fellow beings and solidarity with the common good. After a lifetime of feeling guilty about the amount of waste my existence produces, it's actually kind of nice to think that my little liver can conjugate some of these environmental toxins, and my body (if I take care of it) can reduce the toxicity of the environment in this tiny way.

It's important to step back and look at the interrelatedness of things, and search for some creative solutions. It's also good to remember that we people are strong enough to deal with our circumstances, be they national policies that need to be overhauled, personal habits that are taking their toll, or lurking toxins every way we turn. We are built to deal with these things.