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Blog/Opinion: Prescription Medications in Your Water Supply?

By HHI Staff

One class of pollutants that has not been considered much involves the vast variety of human and animal prescription medications now being found in increasing concentrations in our water supplies. These include hormones, chemotherapy drugs, pain killers, antibiotics, antidepressants, tranquilizers, etc. Some of these find their way into drinking water sources because leftover, old, or unwanted drugs are simply flushed down the toilet, or poured down the sink drain. Other medications are illegally dumped, along with contaminated syringes, etc., into waterways—where there are no questions asked, no fees, and no regulations.


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However, a far greater percentage of medication pollution is simply excreted out from people and animals. It may be surprising to learn that, in reality, only a fraction of most prescription drugs are utilized internally. In fact, the majority (typically 50-90%) are eliminated in urine and feces—unchanged from the original chemical formulation. The remainder is excreted in the form of metabolites. These are chemicals produced as by-products of the body’s interaction with the drug(s).


Think about the routine practice of dosing farm animal with antibiotics, growth stimulators, etc. and their resulting medication-rich urine and dung. This excrement is often completely untreated. Of course, most human urine and feces is “properly” disposed of in private septic systems, or by utility waste-water treatment plants. Yet, in all these cases, the medicinal compounds don’t biodegrade into harmless, simple components. That’s because many of them were formulated to be persistent (long-lasting) and lipophilic (dissolvable only in fat, not water).


Furthermore, some reports indicate that prescription drug metabolites may be even more persistent and lipophilic than the original medications. It’s little wonder then that many prescription drugs (and their metabolites) accumulate in the environment, and eventually enter water supplies. According to Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, “German scientists report that anywhere from 30 to 60 drugs can be measured in a typical water sample.”


Interestingly, it was not until 1972 (when drugs were first accidentally detected in Kansas City’s sewage) that there was any real concern about prescription medications being an environmental pollutant. Apparently, no one had even thought to look for them in the environment before. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken the position that it’s officially concerned about drugs in the nation’s water supply. However, they feel that the current concentrations are still too low to pose any danger. Yet, at the same time, they’ve created a regulatory policy aimed at all new drugs, that requires manufacturers to provide “estimates of concentrations that result from excretion.” So, progress is being made—slowly.


As a water-using consumer, having medicinal residues and/or their metabolites in your drinking water is not ideal at any concentration. However, it’s difficult to say, at this time, with any certainty, how to best remove them at home. Of course, it’s likely that a certain quantity could be removed by activated charcoal, especially carbon blocks, but perhaps not all. Distillation may be helpful, too, but will it remove every compound? One water tester (a pro-reverse-osmosis advocate) believes that “only reverse-osmosis units can be trusted to do a good job on these kinds of pollutants.” Because of the current lack of information, it’s probably safe to say that water distillers with activated-charcoal filters, and reverse-osmosis units with activated-charcoal filters are likely the better treatment options.


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Prescription Medications in Your Water Supply?:  Created on October 23rd, 2010.  Last Modified on October 23rd, 2010


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