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Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?

Where do PPCPs come from?

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products, known in the water industry as PPCPs, are a group of compounds consisting of human and veterinary drugs (prescription or over the counter) and consumer products, such as fragrance, lotions, sun-screens, house cleaning products, and others. These compounds have now been detected in surface water, drinking water and wastewater in both Europe and the U.S.
Pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, hormones, mood stabilizers, and other drugs -- are in our drinking water supplies, according to a government report.

According to the investigation, the drugs get into the drinking water supply through several routes:
  • Flushing unused medications down the toilet or sink.
  • Rinsing personal hygiene and household cleaning products down the drain.
  • Excreting unabsorbed medications into the sewage system.
  • Farm animals excreting veterinary drugs, including hormones and antibiotics, into fields where they run off into lakes and streams.
  • Commercial improper disposal methods.

Pharmaceuticals in public water supplies?

Pharmaceuticals, along with trace amounts of caffeine, were found in the drinking water supplies of 24 of 28 U.S. metropolitan areas tested. The findings were revealed as part of the first federal research on pharmaceuticals in water supplies, and those results are detailed in an investigative report by the Associated Press.


  • Low levels of pharmaceuticals in the water supply have been a concern for a decade or longer, says Sarah Janssen, MD, PHD, MPH, a science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group.
  • "Ever since the late 1990s, the science community has recognized that pharmaceuticals, especially oral contraceptives, are found in sewage water and are potentially contaminating drinking water," Janssen tells WebMD.
  • Concern among scientists increased when fish in the Potomac River and elsewhere were found to have both male and female characteristics when exposed to estrogen-like substances, she says. For instance, some fish had both testes and an ovary, she says.


In addition to caffeine, the drugs found in treated water include the well-known pain medications ibuprofen and naproxen, commonly found in Aleve. But there were also some lesser-known drugs: carbamazepine, an anti-convulsive to reduce epileptic seizures and a mood stabilizer for treating bipolar disorders; sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic that can be used for humans and animals in treating urinary tract and other infections; and monensin, an antibiotic typically given to cattle. In addition, the study uncovered traces of triclocarban, a disinfectant used in antibacterial soaps.

These drugs are found so commonly nationwide, highlights an emerging water dilemma that the public rarely considers. The drugs we use for ourselves and animals are being flushed directly into waste water, which then becomes a drinking water source downstream. However, most waste water and drinking water treatment systems, are incapable of removing those drugs.

The health effects of drinking these drug compounds over a long period is largely unstudied.

The Evidence

A five month investigation by the Associated Press has discovered that quantities of drugs, including antibiotics, sex hormones, and anti-seizure compounds, have been found in public drinking water supplied to over 40 million Americans across the US.

While the concentrations are small, the water companies still insist that these levels are within safety limits. Even though the AP said the long term effects on people's health of so many prescription drugs and over the counter medicines such as acetaminophen (paracetamol) and ibuprofen, even in tiny amounts, are starting to worry scientists.

Drugs and their derivatives get into the drinking water supply because when people on medication go to the toilet they excrete whatever the body does not absorb and any matabolized byproducts. Water companies treat the waste before discharging it into rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and then treat it again before it enters the drinking water system. However, the various treatments don't remove all traces of drugs.

For five months, the AP National Investigative Team visited treatment plants, interviewed over 200 scientists, officials and academics, analyzed federal databases and reviewed hundreds of scientific reports.

Among their enquiries the AP investigators came across research studies that have "gone virtually unnoticed by the general public" where scientists were alarmed at the effect of the drinking water contaminants on human cells and wildlife.

The AP investigators discovered that drugs have been found in the drinking water of 24 of 28 U.S. metropolitan areas tested across the country.

Pharmaceuticals in the U.S. Drinking Water

Pharmaceuticals in the U.S. Drinking Water

 Here are some of the key findings:

  • Southern California: a portion of drinking water that supplies 18.5 million people contained traces of anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety drugs
  • Philadelphia: treated drinking water contained 56 drugs or byproducts, including pharmaceuticals for pain, infection, cholesterol control, heart conditions, asthma.
  • San Francisco: a sex hormone was detected in the drinking water.
  • Washington DC: six drugs were found in the drinking water supply of the capital and surrounding area.
  • Tucson, Arizona: an antibiotic and two other medications were found in the drinking water.
  • Northern New Jersey: drinking water for 850,000 residents was found to contain carbamazepine, a mood stabilizer, and a metabolized byproduct of angina medication. This was found by US Geological Survey researchers who analyzed a treatment plant.

The AP report paints a rather chaotic and inconsistent picture of what is happening nationwide, with some water companies testing for a vast range of pharmaceutical compounds and others only testing for two. This is not surprising, since the AP team found that the "federal government doesn't require any testing and hasn't set safety limits for drugs in water".

Filtering out Pharmaceuticals

There are two basic types of water filter. Those that are installed inside a water ionizer and those that are installed outside a water ionizer or as a standalone filter. External filter systems can be configured in any number of stages with each stage removing a particular type or group of contaminants. Removing one type or group of contaminants is often considered a 1-Stage filter (i.e. removing either chlorine, fluoride-lead-arsenic, or nitrates). Filters can be combined to form any number of stages to form: 2-Stage, 3-Stage, and even 7-Stage (i.e. reverse osmosis) filter systems. How many stages you need to filter your water depends on the possible contaminants in your water. The most common water contaminants include:


By combining different filters into a 2-Stage or 3-Stage system, you can remove multiple contaminants to produce a higher quality drinking water than with just a 1-Stage filter. Reverse osmosis filtration systems are more expensive, however, they are recommended for removing the highest percent (up to 99%) of contaminants from your water.


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