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LIMASSOL, Cyprus (Reuters Life!) - Researchers in Cyprus have discovered trace levels of pharmaceuticals in the water supply as a result of a pill-popping culture which makes Cypriots one of the leading EU consumers of antibiotics.
At present, the quantities of chemicals ranging from painkillers to antibiotics and antidepressants found in the water supply are too minute to be a public health threat.
But scientists say further research is needed on the impact of a longer-term accumulation of the substances, as well as the interaction of each in a chemical cocktail if the present consumption and use of medication continues unabated.
"Society needs to pay more attention to water quality issues because it is generally taken for granted," said Dr Konstantinos Makris, Assistant Professor at the Cyprus International Institute for Environmental and Public Health, part of the Cyprus University of Technology.
The institute, which is associated with the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted tests on water supplies for 16 pharmaceuticals, six known or suspected endocrine disrupting compounds, two flame retardants, a fragrance and an insect repellent.
"We found almost all of them in treated waste water, there were less in the ground water and we found two in home tap supplies," Makris told Reuters in an interview.
"We had thought the waste water treatment process would have been effective enough to remove the majority of these compounds."
Cyprus registers the second highest consumption of antibiotics among 34 countries participating in the European Surveillance of Antimicrobial Consumption (EASC) project. Greece tops the list.
"It is not actually a Cypriot problem, it's a global problem particularly in the developed world where people consume vast quantities of pharmaceuticals, most of the time for no important reason," said Makris.
Although in concentrations of "nanograms per liter," researchers discovered ibuprofen, an analgesic, in household tap water, along with Bisphenol-A (BPA), which can be used in the production of plastics.
While ibuprofen was the result of Cypriots reaching for the painkiller and being recycled back into the system, researchers are unclear how Bisphenol-A, a suspected endocrine disruptor, made it into the mix.
Some scientists believe BPA may interfere with the activity of hormones in the endocrine system and in the reproductive system. Last week the European Union decided it was to be banned in plastic baby bottles from 2011.
While current concentrations of either ibuprofen or BPA in potable water are not high enough to pose a risk to public health the presence in raw water implies that more could be done for long-term waste management and recycling practices for expired pharmaceuticals.
"Conventional treatment is not designed to remove these emerging contaminants, so its obvious that other technologies are needed," Makris said.
Editing by Paul Casciato