Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

In 1999, Christian Daughton, an environmental chemist with the EPA, and Thomas Ternes, who worked for Germany’s ESWE-Institute for Water Research and Water Technology, published a journal article that revealed the presence of pharmaceuticals in the freshwater cycle. Its publication sparked a flurry of attention and investigation that has continued to this day.

The presence of pharmaceuticals in the water supply points to a potential problem for both humans and the environment. It means that humans are being exposed to medicines that they don’t need and the ecosystem is being exposed to chemicals that can alter how living organisms develop and grow. Even though it’s been almost 20 years since Daughton and Ternes published their findings, research into this problem is still in its infancy. However, the urgency behind this problem is growing.

One primary reason for the growing concern is that populations in North America and Europe are aging, and they are increasingly relying on prescription drugs to address a wide variety of health issues. In other words, more people plus more medication means more reasons for concern.

What some people find alarming is that water treatment facilities are not required to filter pharmaceuticals out of the water supply. The EPA requires water treatment facilities to test for nearly 90 different potential contaminants, but medicines aren’t on this list. While treatment facilities aren’t required to test for pharmaceuticals, the good news is that water treatment facilities are well-equipped to filter many of these “toxins” out of the water supply. They typically remove anywhere from 95 to 98 percent of pharmaceuticals from the water supply. Still, no one is quite sure where that remaining three to five percent ends up or what impact it has.

Drugs Found in Drinking Water

So, now it’s up to researchers to develop a better understanding of this issue. To do this, they are asking two main questions:

  1. How do pharmaceuticals end up in the water supply?
  2. What kind of impact are these chemicals in the water having on the people, animals, and plants consuming them?

Why Is This Happening?

First of all, let’s define what we mean when we use the term “pharmaceuticals.” This term refers to prescription medications that are given to humans to treat a wide variety of medical conditions. So far, studies have shown that the drugs most likely to be found in drinking water include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Contraceptives and other synthetic hormones
  • Blood thinners
  • Heart medication
  • Painkillers

One recent study even found antianxiety and anticonvulsant drugs, as well as a beta-blocker, in tap water. Not only do prescription medications end up in the water supply, but so do over-the-counter medications, sunscreen, perfumes, lotions, and cologne.

While researchers believe the human body metabolizes about 90 percent of the medications it takes, 10 percent still ends up leaving the human body and finding its way into the water supply. One of the main ways prescription drugs get into the water supply is through human waste. When you take a medication, your body metabolizes it, absorbing the parts it needs and sending the rest out in your urine or feces. Sometimes your body may sweat out the excess instead, which can then be washed down the drain during a shower or be filtered out of your clothes when you wash them.

The other primary way that pharmaceuticals end up in the water supply is through people flushing their medications. Until relatively recently, the recommendation for disposing of unused or expired prescriptions was to flush them down the toilet. When researchers discovered the chemicals from medications were lingering in the water supply, this recommendation changed and people started finding alternative ways to dispose of their medications, primarily through pharmaceutical take-back programs or mixing them with kitty litter or coffee grounds before throwing them into the trash. However, in spite of the change in recommendations, there are still a lot of people who believe that flushing medications is the proper way to get rid of them, so they still find their way into the water supply.

While water treatment facilities are equipped to deal with chemicals and unwanted substances in the water supply, one challenge that they face is the changing nature of the chemicals that are present. For example, in one year there can be a significant spike in the concentration of one specific pharmaceutical compound, so they tailor their treatment accordingly. However, the next year rolls around, and there is a spike in a different chemical. This continually changing chemical profile can be challenging for a water treatment facility because it requires them to continuously adapt their treatment plan.

The Environmental Impacts of Drugs in Our Water

Environmental Impacts

Research into how pharmaceuticals in water can impact the environment is still in its infancy. This is not because it’s not important, but, as we mentioned at the beginning, the scientific community only began to take this issue seriously in the late ’90s. However, what we know is that we aren’t over-estimating the potential of this problem.

At the rates that humans are using medications — both prescription-strength and over-the-counter — the potential for impact is multiplying. How? Let’s look at one example. The majority of women (72 percent) who use contraceptives use the hormonal variety — the pill, the patch, a hormonal IUD or an injection. In 2014, that equated to over 9.5 million women using “The Pill,” while another nearly six million relied on other hormonal options. Hormonal contraceptives are one of the pharmaceuticals that have been found present in drinking water. Even if only a small percentage of each dose of each woman’s medication finds its way into the water supply, those small percentages add up to something much more significant.

And many other medications have a similar story.

When scientists find a medication in the water supply, it doesn’t just stay there. If it’s in the water supply, then it can impact what’s in the soil, the air and the sediment around the area it flows through. It can also affect the wildlife in a particular region. A recent study focused on zebrafish and the effects that even low concentrations of pharmaceuticals may have on them. Conditions were recreated in a lab environment to expose them to certain pharmaceutical toxins, and the result was a decrease in reproduction, as well as deformities and developmental problems in their embryos.

However, part of the problem is that the detection and treatment of these pharmaceuticals in the water supply aren’t as cut-and-dried as it sounds. Because pharmaceuticals are chemicals, even these small amounts and residues can be impacted by the other chemicals and conditions around them. Final effects can depend on what other biological organisms are in the water or the soil. They can depend on how hot or cold it is outside or how much oxygen is available. All of these factors can alter the impact of one single chemical on the organisms it contacts.

What that means is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Even though initial studies have shown that pharmaceuticals are present in relatively small percentages, there is simply not enough information out there to determine the impact these small percentages have on the environment. The scientific community is working to expand its body of knowledge to better protect the world we live in. It is clear that the ongoing exposure of organisms to these pharmaceuticals is having an impact on ecosystems. For example, antibiotics have been found to have a direct effect on algae and soil microbes. The steroids found in contraceptives have been traced back to the fertility and development of fish — as we mentioned above — as well as reptiles and various invertebrates.

While there is a reason to believe the presence of pharmaceuticals have a negative impact on the environment, scientists face challenges, particularly in being able to recreate the natural environment in their labs and being able to study these things over time, rather than drawing conclusions from short-term observations. So, researching more than the presence of one specific compound will be vital to understanding how pharmaceuticals interact with other chemicals to produce effects — whether good or bad — in the environment.

How Drugs in Our Drinking Water Can Affect Your Health

When it comes to pharmaceutical pollution in the water supply and its impact on human health, there’s good news and bad news.

Affect Your Health

The good news is that these chemicals are not present in our water supply in large amounts. That means that, so far, there has not been any scientific proof that these chemicals impact human health drastically. But, as we mentioned previously, there have been several studies that have shown negative impacts on fish, reptiles, and other organisms.

The bad news is that this area of research and study is still in its infancy, and no one knows how this will impact people in the long term. This evidence is enough to provide concern for humans who are using and consuming this water as well. Since water treatment facilities are not required to test for or filter out pharmaceuticals, there is no way to tell conclusively what people are ingesting over time. Knowing the side effects the pharmaceuticals in question can have on the human body when they are ingested in other ways, there is a high probability that they are impacting people to some degree.

There is a particular concern for the more vulnerable segments of the population, especially pregnant women, the elderly, and children. Children are especially at risk because their bodies cannot filter toxins the way an adult body can. There is also some concern about people building up resistance to certain drugs when they are exposed to small amounts of it over time, even in their water.

How Can I Protect My Family?

While you shouldn’t panic over this, there’s no doubt there are things in your tap water you probably don’t want there. What steps can you take to protect yourself and your family from drugs in drinking water and their potentially harmful effects?

1. Don’t Flush Pharmaceuticals

don't flush unused pills or drugs

Part of correcting a problem is committing to being part of the solution. Start by changing some of your own habits when it comes to the drugs you take. Make sure you understand how to properly dispose of your medications and do not flush them down the toilet or wash them down the drain. Also take steps to minimize pharmaceutical waste. Don’t buy more medicine than you can use before it expires. Ask your doctor for samples if you’re trying a new medication, rather than filling a whole prescription you may not use.

2. Invest in a Water Filtration System

Your family deserves water that is clean, healthy and tastes great. You can have this water when you invest in a water filtration system designed to filter out contaminants that reside in your drinking water. By purchasing a Multipure Drinking Water System or filter, you can reduce the chlorine, chemicals, and other contaminants in your home’s drinking water. Designed to fit either on your kitchen countertop, or below the sink — eliminating bulky bottles or pitchers — the Multipure Drinking Water System takes out the stuff you don’t want and leaves behind clean, great tasting water for drinking, cooking, and even cleaning.

Contact Multipure

Multipure also offers Home Essentials — filters for bathroom sinks, showerheads and personal water bottles, as well as options for your garden and yard. Sometimes, people assume that if they aren’t drinking the water, then it doesn’t have to be as clean — this assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. Exposure to water and the contaminants in it comes even just from showering or washing your hands. And, when you use tap water to keep your lawn green or your roses in bloom, you’re putting those contaminants back into the ground around your home.

What’s Next?

While there’s still a lot of research to be done toward understanding the impact of pharmaceuticals in the water supply, scientists generally agree that any level of exposure — no matter how small — is potentially harmful. And, while they are still working toward understanding the specific impacts associated with this dilemma, there’s no question that people should do anything they can to reduce their exposure to any chemical or substance they don’t absolutely need.

That’s where Multipure comes in. Thanks to our extensive selection of water filtration systems, our customers have discovered firsthand the benefits of having clean, filtered water in their homes — for drinking, washing, and even gardening. Not only is water filtered through our solid carbon block filters cleaner, but it looks and tastes better too.

Don’t wait to make the change to cleaner water. Contact Multipure today and let one of our representatives help you decide which of our filtering options are best for your home.