There is a photograph that stays with me. A man is sprawled on a makeshift FEMA cot at the New Orleans airport. It is days after Hurricane Katrina moved through, and the man is clearly lost in the grey folds of his mind. The caption says that he is schizophrenic and that he is coping without his medicine. However, the symptoms of his disease bloom in his eyes and in the awkward extension of his fingers.
It is a cruel picture. But it stays with me and endures because of its secondary narration.
It is an illustration of how dependent the population has become on wide varieties of pharmaceutical products. Americans consume pills in great abundance to alleviate a broad range of problems – from peripheral discomforts to life-threatening progressions – and we consume these chemical wonders in bulk at a cumulative weight that can be measured in the millions of pounds.
And the dosages that our bodies do not fully absorb are excreted; the pills that go foul or expire are discarded; the regiments that we no longer need to follow are thrown away. These are the byproducts of our reliance – the pieces of near-cures and the half-lives of a population’s collective endurance.
This stays with me – the byproduct question – because it stays with all of us: in our freshwater supply and in our stomachs and bladders and sweat glands. We are drinking the artificial hope of our neighbors, and this exposure is becoming considerably more dangerous.
In March 2008, MSNBC reported, “The presence of so many prescription drugs – and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen – in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.”
This kind of broad exposure in national water supplies has knock-on effects in the microbial world, yielding an ironic benefit for many of the bacterial animals we have long been looking to eradicate with antibiotics. But the very volume of pharmaceutical byproducts in the drinking water is now extending beyond the more usual antibiotic concerns.
The Wall Street Journal reported on September 15, 2008 that U.S. hospitals and healthcare facilities are dumping millions of pounds of unused drugs down the drain and contaminating the country’s water supply. “Researchers are finding evidence that even extremely diluted concentrations of pharmaceutical residues harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species in the wild. Also, researchers report that human cells fail to grow normally when exposed to trace concentrations of certain drugs.”
Human cells that fail to grow normally may otherwise be considered a precondition of cancer – cellular mutations are abnormal cell developments, and the failure to grow normally can also mean success in growing abnormally. Cells that fail to grow normally can also refer to remarkable birth defects. It may also be a reference to the failure of normal cells to divide and propagate properly, resulting in the death of the multi-cellular creature experiencing the failure.
This is dangerous stuff.
But in the meantime, I drink. I drink bottled water from springs in Pennsylvania and from reprocessed sources elsewhere. I drink Diet Coke from cans and iced teas from wide-necked glass bottles. I drink bitter coffees from stainless steel urns fed by New York City’s copper pipes. I drink citrus juices from waxy half-gallon containers, processed at mechanized plants in Florida.
I do all of this. And then I excrete. And later I am thirsty again. And this is modern life - knowing and hoping not to know.