Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

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PillsAmericans ingest millions of prescription drugs annually, and up until now flushing unused or expired medications down the toilet was a common and accepted practice. Initially, this practice served as a poison prevention measure, but research now indicates that pharmaceuticals flushed into the water system may not necessarily be removed by sewage treatment facilities. These treatment facilities were simply not designed to eliminate pharmaceuticals in the water, which in turn may have negative affects on drinking water quality and the environment. 

Medications make their way into the environment from sources such as animal feedlots, land application of organic materials and wastewater treatment plants that treat residential, commercial, and/or industrial wastewater. Medications can enter the sewer system in various ways, but one major route is through the disposal of unused or expired medications down the toilet or drain. Once the pharmaceuticals reach the treatment plants, it is assumed that all traces of pharmaceuticals will be removed. However, these treatment plants may not necessarily be equipped to remove medications from the water. They are instead responsible for removing conventional pollutants such as solids and biodegradable materials.

Major Concerns Regarding Medications in Surface Water Bodies  
This is a complex issue and the level of risk to humans and the environment is still yet to be determined. However, the presence of increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics and interference with growth and reproduction in aquatic organisms such as fish and frogs are major concerns. It is impossible to know what combinations of medications in the water system will produce long-term risks, but in the meantime, it is important to minimize the disposal of medications into the sewage system in order to decrease the possible negative and irreversible effects pharmaceuticals may have on the environment. 

Facts about Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

  • Many water sources—rivers, streams and groundwater—are susceptible to PPCPs and EDCs through wastewater input and/or agricultural practices.  Some of these compounds can persist through the water treatment process.
  • The presence of PPCPs and EDCs in source waters is not a new phenomenon.  These chemicals have been present since their initial use by consumers and industry.
  • The development of more sensitive analytical techniques has only recently allowed the detection of these compounds at such low environmental levels.
  • Wastewater discharge and runoff from agricultural areas are considered significant factors associated with the presence of PPCPs in surface waters.
  • A survey of Colorado River Water conducted in 2002 by the U.S. Geological Survey detected eight pharmaceutical compounds and three PPCPs; all detections were in low parts-per-billion to parts-per-trillion ranges.
  • In general, most PPCPs cannot be removed by conventional treatment.  Ozone, however, is considered one of the most cost-effective treatment technologies capable of removing a wide range of PPCPs and EDCs.  Advanced treatment processes such as membrane technology can remove most PPCPs.
  • The human health effects, if any, of drinking water with extremely low trace levels of PPCPs and EDCs are not known at this time.  This is being studied but considerably more work is required to determine whether there are any impacts.

Safe Disposal Options
The disposal options of waste medications differ from state to state, but in regions of California, there are a various options available.

  1. Submit unused or unwanted medications to local hazardous waste collection centers. It is illegal for collection centers to accept controlled substances. These are drugs that have a potential for addiction and/or abuse such as narcotics and tranquilizers. If you are unsure whether your prescription is a controlled substance, check with your doctor or pharmacist. If your medication is a controlled substance, proceed to option 2, described below.
  2. Securely seal medications and dispose out of the reach of children and pets 

Treat all medications prior to disposal 

  1. Treat all Medications: Add water and then salt, ashes from the fireplace or barbeque pit, or dirt from the yard to pills or capsules in a bottle. Add salt, ashes or dirt to liquid medications. Wrap several layers of masking tape or duct tape to cover. It is also wise to place the medications in the trash as close to the pick-up time as possible so that the medication will have a lesser chance of being ingested by someone other than the intended patient.
  2. Use original container: Tape the lid to the container with duct tape. Avoid breaks by using a plastic container versus a glass bottle. Hide medications in an outer container such as a paper bag, box or plastic tub and wrap in several layers of newspaper to prevent discovery or removal from the trash.
  3. Remove personal information: Remove the patients name, drug name, prescription number, and other sensitive information before disposal.
For More Information
Visit the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) web site for Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products Frequently Asked Questions.