In recent years there has been mounting concern about the presence of chemicals from pharmaceuticals and personal care products, such as cosmetics, in the nation’s streams and rivers.

There is no question that these chemicals are present in the nation’s waterways. The USGS conducted the first major investigation in 2002 and found, on average, seven chemical compounds in the streams they surveyed.

Pharmaceuticals in our water supply. Our bodies release them when we urinate or flush old drugs down the toilet.

In 2008, the Associated Press found an array of pharmaceuticals, from pain killers to antibiotics to mood stabilizers, in the drinking water of 24 major metropolitan water suppliers. Further, 34 of the 62 water suppliers contacted by the AP couldn’t provide results as they had never tested for pharmaceutical compounds.

This problem won’t go away anytime soon.

American drug consumption has increased rapidly in recent years, and Americans fill 3.7 billion prescriptions every year. The chemicals in these drugs end up in waterways after being excreted from the body or when unused medication is flushed down the toilet.

Most municipal sewage treatment facilities do not remove the pharmaceutical compounds from your water, and major upgrades would be required to do so. The federal government hasn’t stepped in to require testing or set safety limits, leaving many questions unanswered.


Pharmaceutical compounds are found at much lower concentrations in rivers and streams than the normally prescribed doses, but there is concern that chronic exposure to numerous compounds could cause serious health problems and that compounds can act synergistically to cause adverse health effects.

Of particular concern is the presence of endocrine disruptors, which come from a variety of agricultural, industrial, and domestic sources, including pharmaceuticals.

These compounds disrupt internal biological processes such as development, growth, and reproduction that are regulated by hormones.

Whether these compounds are present in sufficient levels in our waterways to affect human health remains a topic of serious concern and ongoing research.


Joseph Bylund
Cascade into the Potomac River

The fish in the Potomac River may look normal at first glance, but many of the Potomac’s male bass are producing eggs, and similar “intersex” fish are being found in rivers across the country.

While scientists have yet to pinpoint the cause of this mutation, it’s thought that a group of compounds known as endocrine disruptors are responsible.

These chemicals affect key biological processes regulated by hormones, such as growth, development and reproduction, and include common medications including birth control pills.

Whatever the cause, it’s unknown what effects these compounds are having on us when we drink or swim in the same waters. Like the canary in the coal mine, the story of intersex fish may be an early warning of the effects that pharmaceuticals are having on the health of our waterways and on the people and organisms that depend on them.


Use the following steps to reduce the risk of long-term human health effects of pharmaceuticals in your water supply:


The cheapest and easiest way to limit pharmaceutical contamination is to keep drugs from entering our waterways in the first place. Drug take back programs, public education on proper disposal, and regulations to limit large-scale medicine flushing at hospitals and nursing facilities are important first steps that can greatly reduce the amount of contaminants entering our waterways. Some states and counties have begun to experiment with take-back programs. For example, Washington State collected and disposed of over 15,000 pounds of unwanted medications during a two year pilot program.


Additional research is needed to assess potential human health effects and identify the best methods for removing pharmaceutical compounds at treatment plants. If there is a significant long-term risk to public health, more aggressive efforts to control the problem may be needed.


While proper disposal can limit pharmaceutical contamination, more work on source control will ultimately be needed in addition to upgrading treatment infrastructure and reassessing our approach to use and dispose of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.