Drugs in Your Water

Drugs in Your Water

[This article, written by the American Ground Water Trust was originally published in


Drugs in Your Water

The more we test – the more we find, is the situation with water quality investigations in our rivers, lakes and aquifers. In 2002 the United States Geological Survey published results from a study of 139 of the nation’s rivers in 30 states regarding pollution from pharmaceuticals, personal care products (PPCPs) and other organic wastewater products that we use in our daily activities.  These compounds may impact the endocrine systems in animals and humans. (Endocrine glands release hormones into the bloodstream that help organs function properly).  Eighty percent of the sampled streams were found to have some of these substances.  A study in Denmark found 191 “household substances” in the wastewater from an apartment building including surfactants, emulsifiers, fragrances & flavors, preservatives, antioxidants, softeners, plasticisers, solvents and miscellaneous compounds.  All of the compounds were found at extremely low concentrations in the parts per trillion range.  It is only in the last several years that advances in water testing instrumentation have made it possible to detect compounds at these very low concentrations. 


The results from these studies underscore a basic environmental concept that our waste products do not “go away” when we dispose of them in our solid trash or wastewater.  The sunscreens, fragrances and soaps we use are washed away in nearly the same form as directly out of the bottle.  Many medicines are not totally metabolized within our bodies and may be released unaltered along with “used” medicinal compounds.  Our wastewater treatment methods (public utility or on-site septic) are not designed to remove these types of compounds from the waste stream. 


Investigations are ongoing to determine the effects of these compounds at such low concentrations in aquatic habitats (fauna and flora) and on humans.  It is unclear whether the compounds are potential environmental health threats at these low levels individually or as the result of synergistic effects with other compounds.  Dr. Paul Westerhoff at Arizona State University reports that a glass of distilled water left in a well-ventilated office overnight will absorb detectable concentrations at the parts per billion range from products such as stimulants, antidepressants and fragrances that are being used by the office staff. 


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a “Green Pharmacy” program that would develop regulations for the safe disposal of prescription drugs and build public awareness about not disposing of medicines down drains or toilets.  So far the program is unfunded by Congress. 


Once in the water, it appears likely that reverse osmosis treatment would have a high removal rate for many pharmaceuticals, personal care product substances and other potential endocrine disruptor compounds.  In the meantime, we can do our part to help reduce the amounts of these compounds in our wastewater by using the products as directed and in the smallest quantities possible.  Try to use “all” the product in a container before disposing in the trash.  Whenever possible, use naturally occurring biodegradable compounds rather than synthetic solvent or chemically preserved products.  Do not dispose of excess medicines or chemical products down drains or toilets.  Be sure that your water well is constructed properly and at a safe distance from on-site septic systems. 


More information:


Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products as Environmental Pollutants:



USGS Toxic Substance Hydrology Program:



Statement by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America



[© American Ground Water Trust.  This article may be reprinted for non-commercial educational purposes provided it is used in its entirety and that reference is made to its source as an article in THE AMERICAN WELL OWNER, 2003, Number 4]