FRIDLEY, Minn. - Hidden in our water is a problem we can't see, or smell or touch. A problem we created.

Pharmaceutical drugs like antibiotics, antidepressants, birth control and opioids are getting into our water sources mostly through wastewater. A recent study by the EPA found traces of 26 different pharmaceutical drugs in samples of drinking water around the U.S. after the water was treated and headed for the tap.

"What we found is that when fish are exposed to these chemicals, in combination or maybe, singly, we see a lot of genes turn on or turn off," said Mark Ferrey, an Environmental Scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

In turn, causing tumors, reproductive issues, even sex changes in fish. Currently, it's unclear if these drugs in such small amounts are harmful to humans.

At the Minneapolis drinking water treatment facility, experts believe they have found a revolutionary way to get the drugs out. A bacteria buffet of sorts. Scientists here are growing and using colonies of bacteria that will eat drug compounds.

George Kraynick (Credit: KARE 11)
George Kraynick (Credit: KARE 11)

Water quality manager George Kraynick has worked with the University of Minnesota on this study for five years. They're testing a new kind of filter called Granular Activated Carbon -- which absorbs bad odors and tastes in water -- but also provides the nooks and crannies for bacteria to grow. As they add various drugs and contaminates to the water, nature goes to work.

"They just see them as this big carbon molecule like a big slice of pizza and just gobble it down and love it," said Kraynick. "Depending on the chemical, we are removing 50 to 87 percent of the contaminants."

While pharmaceuticals are repeatedly found in Minnesota rivers, Kraynick says they've tested for dozens of drugs and chemicals in the Mississippi River in Fridley and found none of them to date, but he says it's only a matter of time. Which is why the city is taking the pill-eating Pacman pilot project to full scale production starting next year.

"They've always been there really, we are just harnessing them now and understanding they can work for us."

The last step of the filtration process is a disinfectant that kills the bacteria.