Stop pharmaceuticals in water dead on its tracks!

I bet you’ve done it before.

You’re going through your bathroom cabinet, cleaning out clutter and old medicine bottles.

After a few minutes, you’ve amassed a collection of old prescriptions. You open those twist tops and dump the pills in the toilet.

Flush! They’re gone. The yellow bottles pile up in the trash can.

Sound familiar?

Pharmaceuticals in water is a relatively new phenomenon

Drugs in water supplyEvery day, drugs change and evolve, and this is yet another challenge for our water treatment plants. They have to adapt to an ever-evolving drug discharge. Who pays for this?

That’s why they are technically known as emerging contaminants.

According to a PBS article, in 1999 a chemist from the EPA and a researcher from Water Technology in Germany co-authored a scientific journal article that alerted to the persistence of pharmaceuticals present in the freshwater cycle.

This article began to place the spotlight on pharmaceuticals in our drinking water supply, a complex and novel discovery.

But how do these medications get in the water in the first place?

Well, humans consume a pharmaceutical, metabolize part of it but the rest is excreted through urine. That urine is flushed down the toilet or washed down in the shower and it goes through our wastewater system and finally back into the water cycle.

Pharmaceuticals are a wide-ranging set of drugs and medications, literally thousands of drugs that combine in endless ways.

However, how many times have you disposed of extra or old medications by flushing them down the toilet?

This is a widespread practice and has been so for many years

Chemicals draining from pipeThis sigh might be happening anywhere in your city. They are located in remote areas or behind shrubs. Or maybe in front of our own eyes, we just hadn't seen it...

Families are dumping their drugs down the drain whenever they need, not knowing the mistake they’re making.

Nowadays, sewage treatment plants are unable to deal with pharmaceuticals in wastewater. Even though some of the most modern treatment plants have technology to remove a portion of these medicines.

The fact that we all consume water all the time begs the questions of how much does it accumulate over time?

And also, at some stages in people’s lives, being exposed to these drugs might be extra problematic, like pregnancy, the elderly and young children.

Moreover, according to Harvard Medical School, chemicals from prescription and over-the-counter medicines is one thing to worry about, but our rivers and streams are also being contaminated by perfume, lotions, sunscreen and body oils as they are washed off in the shower or sink.

Let's do our part for our health

At the end of the day, we the consumers are responsible for most of these pharmaceuticals in our water. Our medicine cabinets are full of old drugs, unused prescriptions, stale vitamins and supplement jars and a bunch of cold, allergy and pain killers.

Another source of pharmaceuticals is the large amounts of animal waste that make it to our water sources.

Large-scale poultry and livestock operations produce a vast amount of manure full of hormones and antibiotics fed to the animals to increase yield and stave off disease. Some of these drugs end up in groundwater that eventually reach our water ways.

Cycle of pharmaceuticals in waterSuper interesting poster about how drugs get into our water. Again, the cyclical nature of the environment and how we play against it. (Image: USGS)

Some of the pharmaceuticals found in several water samples from across the country in a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey, already nearly 10 years ago, found:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Blood thinners
  • Heart medications
  • Hormones
  • Painkillers

As we have discussed in other articles, pharmaceuticals and other contaminants found in our water not only affects humans, fish and wildlife are also affected and guess what?

We end up eating them! A double whammy!

To do your part to reduce drugs in our water, you can:

  • Control bulk purchases at volume discounts
  • Use your town’s drug take-back programs and dispose in their buckets
  • Do not flush any medications down the toilet
  • Do read the label for suggestions about proper disposal (which the FDA established recently in 2007)

Treatment of water contaminated with pharmaceuticals implies using advanced oxidative processes to clean the water. This is taken care of by activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis systems.

Ozone, ultraviolet and nanofiltration also help to reduce the concentration of drugs in water.

For more information about the world of water subscribe to my newsletter, below. Every month you’ll get useful tips about health and wellness and the latest news about our drinking water and the environment.

You can learn more about this precious liquid and how we relate to it by reading a 5-part series here. I promise you’ll take away eye-opening information.

Back to Home Page

Back to Tap Water Contaminants

Environmental Protection Agency, Treating Contaminants of Emerging Concern (PDF)

Harvard Medical School, Drugs in the water,

PBS, The complicated question of drugs in the water,

Science Direct, Advanced oxidation process,

Scientific American, External medicine: discarded drugs may contaminate 40 million American’s drinking water,

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