Understanding Pharmaceutical Pollution in Drinking Water

Have you ever heard about the possibility of traces of drugs in the water you and your family drink? Learn everything about pharmaceutical pollution in drinking water.

Darrell Smith
02.2020 in Water Contamination
Pharmaceutical Pollution in Water
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We frequently discuss air pollution in the United State, but it's about time we started talking about water pollution. After all, 44% of streams, 64% of lakes, and 30% of bays are considered unswimmable and/or unsafe for fishing.

The most common water contaminants in the US are harmful bacteria, nitrogen, mercury, and phosphorous. Where do these contaminants come from? One source that's receiving more and more attention today is pharmaceutical pollution.

Pharmaceutical pollution occurs when drug compounds get into drinking water sources. This can happen in a variety of ways, which we'll discuss in this article.

What is Pharmaceutical Pollution?

Pharmaceuticals are prescription drugs and other over-the-counter (OTC) medications used to treat mental-health disorders, chronic diseases, common illnesses, and more. Veterinary drugs that we give to our pets are also considered pharmaceuticals.

Here's the good thing about these drugs: they're vital to a healthy and thriving community.

Here's the bad news: pharmaceuticals treat abnormalities in humans, which means they're designed to be effective, even in trace amounts. They're also designed to degrade in the body slowly to act longer and provide more robust effects.

These two qualities are important for those who need their medications. Yet, they also factor into why we can find trace amounts of these drugs in potable water.

Estimated Levels of Pharmaceutical Pollution

The World Health Organization reported on a range of studies that tested drinking water for trace amounts of pharmaceutical compounds.

These studies reported levels of less than 0.1 micrograms of pollutants per liter of groundwater. Some studies also looked at drug pollution levels in partially-treated water and found that levels were generally lower at less than 0.05 micrograms per liter.

The same studies found that the exact drugs polluting drinking water depend on a couple of factors:

  • The body of water's location
  • The type of pharmaceutical manufacturers nearby
  • The size of the local population

Of course, the prescription rates of certain drugs in a particular locale also contribute.

How Do Drugs Get in Your Water?

How exactly does pharmaceutical pollution occur? Researchers point to four primary methods by which drugs get into drinking water:

  • Flushing unused medications
  • Excreting drug compounds into sewage systems
  • Runoff of veterinary medications from fields into the soil and local water bodies
  • Generic pharmaceutical manufacturers' poor drug-disposal practices

We'll explore each of these causes of drug pollution below.

Flushing Pills

The opioid epidemic brought awareness to the danger of holding onto unused pain meds. Since then, people have started flushing their prescriptions down the drain or toilet. In fact, a study in California found that up to 50% of all medications are disposed of in these ways.

What most people don't know is that this practice is contributing to pharmaceutical pollution.

Here's how: when we dispose of drugs in the sink or toilet, this water is carried to waste treatment centers. These facilities test and purify the water of contaminants, then emit the water into nearby streams, rivers, and lakes, which are the sources of our drinking water

Drug pollutants also remain throughout the water cycle. The drug-contaminated water evaporates and returns to the ground as rain, which means that even groundwater and well-water aren't safe from this problem.

Human Excretion

Estimates suggest that up to 80% of ingested drugs don't break down in the body. That's why traces of drugs also get into drinking water through human excrement.

People who use pharmaceuticals excrete traces of their medications as waste. Wastewater is ultimately treated and released back to the environment. Still, this introduces traces of pharmaceuticals to the water cycle and into groundwater from rain.

Livestock Excretions

Farm animals that take veterinary medications excrete traces of these drugs in fields. The pollutants absorb into the soil and when it rains, they redirect to local streams as runoff.

Generic Drug Manufacturer Disposal Methods

Researchers have found a higher rate of pharmaceutical pollution when a generic pharma company is upstream. This happens when these manufacturers fail to practice proper and safe drug-disposal methods.

Could Pharmaceutical Pollution Hurt Your Health?

By now, you're probably wondering how trace levels of drug compounds affect human health. So far, researchers have found little effect. However, most of these studies look into the short-term effects of drug pollution and not the long-term consequences.

Short-Term Exposure to Pharmaceuticals in the Water

Consuming trace levels of drugs in your water could mean your tolerance for these medications increases. If you're ever prescribed a similar medication in the future, your body might need higher doses for the drug to take effect.

This also applies to OTC medications that treat common conditions like colds and the flu. As levels of these drugs accumulate in the water, the body develops natural resistance, which means you might begin developing a tolerance to such medications and require higher doses.

Another concern among scientists is antibiotic pollution. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, and if drug pollution in the water exposes the same bacteria to these medications, the bacteria may evolve to be more resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Long-Term Exposure to Low Concentrations of Drugs in Your Water

We have very little knowledge about how trace amounts of drugs in drinking water affect humans in the long term. We need more research on this subject before drawing any conclusions.

Still, researchers do speculate that long-term exposure is especially worrisome for vulnerable demographics such as:

  • Child-bearing mothers
  • Children
  • Elderly
  • Individuals with poor immune system response.

The good news is that pharmaceuticals go through rigorous safety testing before going to market. At the very least, we know more about drug pollutants than we do about other contaminants.

More Than Us: How Drug Pollution Affects Aquatic Life

Researchers have discovered for certain that pharmaceutical pollution hurts fish and other aquatic life.

In studies dating back to the early 2000s, the high levels of estrogen in birth control and post-menopausal medication excretions have been found to feminize male fish, significantly reducing male-to-female ratios. It's also led to more intersex fish that have both male and female qualities.

Fish located downstream from pharmaceutical companies are similarly affected. These streams and rivers contain higher estrogen levels, leading to increased rates of female and intersex fish.

Other studies looked at the effects of common antidepressants on aquatic life. Fish living downstream from wastewater treatment plants had trace amounts in their brain tissue.

Enacting Change and the Illinois Drug Take-Back Act

Illinois recently passed the Drug Take-Back Act in response to worries about drug pollution in water. The act no longer places drug-disposal responsibilities on consumers but instead leaves it with pharmaceutical companies.

These companies must outline a strategy for safe and responsible drug disposal. Then, they must submit their plan for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review. The law also requires at least three drug-collection sites in every Illinois county.

The EPA also released guidelines for individuals and hospitals about flushing drugs. These recommendations don't cover all drugs, but they do mark a great step forward in preventing pharmaceutical pollution.

Europe: Making Progress Toward Pharmaceutical Pollution Change

Illinois stands as one of the only US states to address drug pollution in the environment. Meanwhile, Europe has been making progress on this issue since 2019. The European Parliament recently adopted a proposed Resolution on Pharmaceuticals in the Environment.

The Resolution detailed six areas to improve regarding the pharmaceutical pollution problem. Recognizing the problem at a governmental level is a promising step forward, one we hope the US will soon follow.

Stay in the Know About the Water You and Your Family Drink

Local drinking water-treatment strategies could help reduce the level of drug pollutants in our drinking water. Studies show that water treatment reduces drug pollution by 90%. However, some drugs seem to be treatment-resistant.

The best hope for ensuring clean and safe drinking water, then, is policy change. We need a routine program that monitors, tests, and treats water for drug traces.

Looking for a place where you can stay up to date with all the latest news on pharmaceutical pollution regulations in your area? WaterZen is here to help.

Learn more about our mission to help keep you and your family safe from water contaminants, and keep checking back for more updates on this topic.

In this post: pharmaceutical pollution in water, pharmaceutical contaminants, pharmaceutical pollution

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