Pharmaceuticals in Water: What to Know About PPCPs

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Medications help us to get better – but only when we need them in the first place. So it’s concerning to know that trace amounts of common pharmaceuticals, including those with possibly serious side effects, are found in drinking water supplies up and down the country.

In this guide, we’ve discussed everything you should know about pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in water, including what they are, how they get there, their potential health effects, and more.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • Pharmaceuticals in water are medications and prescription drugs that contaminate our water supplies due to wastewater contamination and incorrect disposal methods.
  • These contaminants pollute water supplies as a result of discharge from industrial wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, incorrect disposal from healthcare institutions, and farming.
  • You can detect pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water with a laboratory test, and remove these contaminants with a suitable at-home water treatment solution.

❔ What Are Pharmaceuticals In Water?

Pharmaceuticals are medications and prescription drugs that enter a water supply in wastewater due to human excretion and poor disposal practices.

You’d like to hope that wastewater treatment plants would remove pharmaceuticals from water, but unfortunately, they don’t. That means pharmaceuticals are still present in trace amounts in treated water.

In Water AsAntibiotics
Analgesics and Anti-Inflammatories
Lipid Regulators
Steroidal Compounds
SourcesImproper disposal of over-the-counter medications
Discharge from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities and healthcare institutions
Farms and animal feeding operations
Contaminant Levels (MCLs)
Currently not regulated
Potential Health RisksNot enough studies or evidence
TreatmentsReverse osmosis membranes
Nanofiltration systems
Activated carbon filters
Water distillers

🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Pharmaceuticals?

The potential health effects of pharmaceuticals in water depend on the types of medications present.

According to WebMD, experts haven’t yet found evidence of the health effects of drugs in drinking water because they’re currently present in very tiny trace amounts.

But the same experts admitted that there was a lot they simply didn’t know about this topic, and called it “an area of concern” – especially when considering the possible health effects of pharmaceuticals that are synthetic hormones.

As for whether certain people, such as young children, pregnant women, or the elderly, are more at risk from pharmaceuticals in their drinking water supplies, again, the answer is “we don’t know”.

However, generally, children are more susceptible to environmental exposures because they don’t have the detoxification systems that adults have and their bodies are still developing. So it’s likely that children are at more of a risk than adults.

Elsewhere, an expert featured in a Healthline article theorized that exposure to very low levels of pharmaceuticals in drinking water is unlikely to have adverse effects on human health when making comparisons to available human health benchmarks.

Scientists and doctors are unable to agree on the possible health effects of pharmaceutical contaminants, simply because there isn’t enough evidence for us to go off.

Mother and child drinking water from tap

🚰 How Do Pharmaceuticals Get Into Drinking Water?

Pharmaceuticals mainly enter our drinking water supplies as a result of use by us, the consumers. Most people have a medicine cabinet that’s packed with a variety of drugs, including over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs, and many of these are disposed of incorrectly.

Chemicals from the drugs we use also end up in the water through human waste. There are also medications that are applied topically, and anything that isn’t absorbed into the skin will likely end up being washed off.

Another possible source of pharmaceuticals in the water is healthcare institutions, like nursing homes and medical establishments that don’t have arrangements in place for the proper disposal or return of unused drugs.

Pharmaceutical manufacturing plants also shouldn’t be forgotten. Contamination from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities can lead to the pollution of nearby lakes, rivers, and streams, which may eventually feed into a drinking water supply.

Finally, farms and animal feeding operations are an unexpected source that contributes to pharmaceutical pollution. Many farmed animals are fed antibiotics and hormones so that they grow faster and are at a lower risk of health issues. Eventually, these may end up leaching into waterways from animal waste.

Pharmaceuticals in a drinking water supply might seem like a new thing, but actually, low concentrations of medications and other drugs have been a concern for at least two decades. While sewage treatment plants can remove some pharmaceuticals fairly effectively with their treatment processes, others remain in the water post-treatment, enabling the widespread contamination of local water sources.

Pharmaceutical wastes

📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?

Yes, water treatment plants should monitor their drinking water supplies for levels of pharmaceutical contaminants.

Legally, public water systems must look out for risks, and if a risk is identified, they must monitor the water and establish water treatment solutions if necessary.

At the moment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t currently regulate pharmaceuticals in water. However, the EPA does at least acknowledge these contaminants as “emerging contaminants” (along with personal care products, detergents, and organic wastewater compounds), noting that they are increasingly being detected in very low concentrations in surface water sources.

At the moment, the EPA’s research has only really focused on the effects that pharmaceutical contaminants might have on aquatic life. In this respect, the EPA is most concerned about medications containing endocrine-disrupting compounds, which are thought to have reproductive effects and demonstrate low acute toxicity as a result of exposure to aquatic organisms.

In 2019, the EPA imposed a “sewer ban”, which prohibited all healthcare facilities and distributors from disposing of pharmaceutical contaminants labeled “hazardous waste” down the drain, and strongly advised that these facilities didn’t sewerage any pharmaceuticals, regardless of their label.

However, aside from its actions to protect aquatic life, the EPA hasn’t established any drinking water standards for pharmaceuticals in regard to human health, which technically means that your water supply could be very affected by pharmaceutical contamination, and you’d have nothing to gauge the possible outcomes of drinking this water.

Testing water quality

🔎 How Can I Tell if Pharmaceuticals Are in My Drinking Water?

Pharmaceutical contaminants have no taste, color, or odor in water, especially since they’re only present in very low trace levels.

That means there’s no way to tell by looking at, tasting, or smelling your water that it contains these contaminants.

The only way to know for certain whether or not your water contains pharmaceutical drugs is to purchase a laboratory water test.

You may be able to find lab tests that detect specific pharmaceuticals, but the most common tests detect a range of the most common pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical ingredients in water, including hormones, BPA, caffeine, ibuprofen, naproxen, and fluoxetine.

To test your tap water with a laboratory test, here’s the general process:

  1. Order a test and wait for it to be shipped to you.
  2. Collect a sample of your tap water in the vial provided.
  3. Send the package back to the laboratory.
  4. Wait for your results to be emailed to you.

Most laboratory tests for pharmaceuticals have a 14-day turnaround time.

Water testing with tap score

👩🏽‍⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?

The best way to protect your family from pharmaceuticals in your water supply is to install a water treatment system that will remove these contaminants.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on our federal government to protect us from pharmaceuticals. The general consensus is that these medications simply aren’t dangerous in trace amounts. But we’re sure that if most people were asked, they’d rather drink clean, pharmaceutical-free water regardless of the possible health effects (or lack thereof) of these contaminants.

The good news is that there are various types of water filter systems that can remove or greatly reduce pharmaceuticals, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to benefit from cleaner drinking water. Some of the most effective water filters for addressing pharmaceutical contamination are:

  • Reverse osmosis membranes
  • Nanofiltration systems
  • Activated carbon filters
  • Water distillers

In the meantime, if you have a reason to be very concerned about the concentrations of pharmaceuticals in your water supply, switch to bottled water until you can install a suitable water treatment system. Keep in mind that some bottled water brands use tap water, so make sure the bottled water you choose is purified with reverse osmosis or distillation.

Will boiling water make a difference to the concentrations of pharmaceuticals? No. Boiling your water supply will simply reduce the volume of water while retaining the same levels of pharmaceuticals, making the problem more concentrated.

Reverse osmosis membrane filter

⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Pharmaceuticals?

There’s only one other way that we might be exposed to pharmaceuticals and other drugs aside from in our drinking water: in our foods.

Various meat products contain trace amounts of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and steroids, which are deliberately fed to animals to encourage quicker and better growth.

Pharmaceutical pollution in our waters may also lead to the accumulation of these contaminants in aquatic organisms such as fish and shellfish.

📝 Where Can I Get More Information?

You can get more information about pharmaceuticals in the water by checking the links below:

  • Jennifer Byrd
    Water Treatment Specialist

    For 20+ years, Jennifer has championed clean water. From navigating operations to leading sales, she's tackled diverse industry challenges. Now, at Redbird Water, she crafts personalized solutions for homes, businesses, and factories. A past Chamber President and industry advocate, Jennifer leverages her expertise in cutting-edge filtration and custom design to transform water concerns into crystal-clear solutions.

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