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Could Our Drinking Water Be Causing Autism?

A new study finds a link between psychoactive drugs in our water and the rise in autism.

I used to joke that we could achieve world peace if we just added Prozac to the drinking water.

Turns out I was wrong. There’s already Prozac in the drinking water and there’s no world peace. The fact is, in many places, the water is a complex cocktail of drugs, including the antidepressant Prozac and other psychoactive medicines. Roughly one in 10 Americans takes a drug for depression; about 80 percent of chemicals in those drugs are flushed from the body in urine and back into the water system.

Now a controversial new study suggests that happy pills bring anything but world peace. Researchers at Idaho State University found that these drug residues may turn on genes linked to autism . (See the study here.)

The concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water are thought to be much lower than prescription doses. But the study’s researchers hypothesize that even small doses of drugs that affect the nervous system could have unanticipated effects in a fetus. “In a developing brain, the dosage may be doing something very different than it does in an adult human brain,” says Michael Thomas, Ph.D ., associate professor of bioinformatics at Idaho State and lead author of the study.

Thomas and his colleagues mixed a cocktail of three commonly prescribed psychoactive drugs (the anti-epileptic carbamazepine, and the two common antidepressants fluoxetine, aka Prozac, and venlafaxine, aka Effexor) at a concentration that was five to 10 times higher than seen downstream from sewage plants, but lower than the prescribed dose. They exposed fathead minnows to the drugs for 18 days, then analyzed the genes that were turned on -- the scientific term is “expressed” -- in the fishes’ brains.

They expected that the drugs would activate genes linked to many neurological disorders. But it was only the 324 genes associated with autism, mainly those involved with early brain development, which were changed.

What should you do?

The Idaho study is in line with other research that has found that women who take antidepressants while pregnant are more likely to have children with autism. But, cautions Thomas, fish aren’t humans. They’re not even mammals. So there’s no reason to avoid tap water if you’re pregnant, explains Thomas. However, if you are concerned, it could pay to invest in a reverse osmosis water filter, which can remove these drug residues, as well as other contaminants, from your drinking water. You can read more about these filters here and check out the National Drinking Water Database to see how contaminated the water is in your town.

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