Pharmaceutical Waste in Water

by RJ Schechner, Concord Academy ‘20


In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of concerns surrounding the presence of chemicals from pharmaceutical products in streams and lakes. The chemicals in these drugs end up in waterways and pass into aquatic ecosystems after being either excreted from one’s body or flushed down the toilet unused. Herb Buxton of the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program sampled water in streams and detected traces of 95 drugs and manufactured chemicals and about 80% of the streams contained pharmaceutical contaminants (1). This problem is expected to increase as American drug consumption increases rapidly in future years. In 2015, the number of prescriptions was 3.7 billion, and it is estimated that in 2019, 4.25 billion retail prescriptions will be filled throughout the United States (2).

Why pharmaceutical products in water is bad

There are concerns that chronic exposure to these compounds can cause serious health risks to humans; however, not enough research has been done. Pharmaceutical products that contain endocrine receptors may impede reproductive development and disrupt the endocrine systems in organisms (3).  Scientists have discovered increased rates of hermaphroditism in frogs living in some urban waterways, and that gender ratios in fish populations to be skewed.

Most sewage treatment facilities in the country do not remove pharmaceutical compounds from the waste and the government does not require testing nor has set safety standards for these chemical compounds (4).

What is being done
The EPA has pledged to step-up monitoring of water supplies and work with health care facilities and agribusinesses to reduce waste and create new guidelines. However, there is not a time period when these actions will be taken and many feel the EPA is not acting fast enough. As an introductory step toward possible regulation, the EPA has added 10 pharmaceutical compounds to its watch list of potentially harmful contaminants that warrant greater investigation.
Additionally, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, has told drug manufacturers to design "eco-friendly" drugs that are absorbed by the body more efficiently or will break down in the environment after they're excreted (5).


Proper drug disposal is the easiest and most cost effective way to limit contamination of drugs in water. Drug take back programs, public education on proper disposal, and regulations to limit large-scale medicine flushing at hospitals and nursing facilities are ways to make sure drugs are disposed of properly. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has held two national drug take-back days and is likely to organize some more (6). In addition, research to see potential human health effects and to find methods to remove pharmaceutical compounds are important. More intensive solutions include upgrading sewer treatment plants to remove pharmaceutical contamination from water and removing existing pharmaceutical compounds from bodies of water (7).   


1. “10 Weird Environmental Issues With Serious Impacts On Wildlife,” Listverse, April 15, 2014,

2. “FastStats,” September 11, 2018,

3. Ibid.

4. “Pharmaceuticals in the Water Supply,” American Rivers (blog), accessed February 2, 2019,

5. Harvard Health Publishing, “Drugs in the Water,” Harvard Health, accessed February 2, 2019,

6. Publishing, “Drugs in the Water.”

7. “Pharmaceuticals in the Water Supply,” American Rivers (blog), accessed February 2, 2019,