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Pharmaceuticals in Our Water: Part 1 – Introduction

Pharmaceuticals in Our Water: Part 1 – Introduction

Section 1: Introduction

               Pharmaceuticals are in our rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, and ground and soil waters.  A U.S. Geological survey conducted from 1999-2000, found at least one of ninety-five organic wastewater contaminants, such as “antibiotics, other prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs, steroids [and] reproductive hormones” in eighty percent of the one-hundred and thirty-nine streams sampled.[1] A 2008 Associated Press investigation revealed “[a] vast array of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones […] in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans” in twenty-four major metropolitan areas.[2] In 2013[3], the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that there were at least twenty-five different active pharmaceutical ingredients in the water at fifty large wastewater treatment plants across the United States.[4]

               Despite the pervasiveness of pharmaceuticals in our nation’s waters, authorities have taken little action to prevent further contamination or to address existing contamination.  Federal environmental statutes do not directly address the discharge of pharmaceuticals into water.  As a result, most wastewater processes do not target pharmaceutical contaminants[5];nor could they due to lack of capacity and technology.[6] Many believe that regulating pharmaceutical discharge is a futile exercise.  Christian Daughton of the EPA noted that “[g]iven the vast array of mechanisms of drug action and side effects, the total number of different toxicity tests possibly required to screen the effluent from a typical [sewage treatment plant] could be impractically large.”[7]

               The discussion that follows includes a scientific explanation of the human and environmental impacts of pharmaceutical discharges and the sources of such discharges (as Section 2); the current legislation that regulates pharmaceutical discharges (as section 3); the scientific solution to preventing pharmaceuticals from entering waters (as part of section 4); and a feasible legal remedy to pharmaceutical discharges (as part of section 4). Additionally, the discussion as a whole makes the case that unregulated pharmaceutical discharges present serious environmental and human health risks that demand statutory directive.



[1] Dana W. Kolpin et al., Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and Other Organic Wastewater Contaminants in U.S. Streams, 1999–2000: A National Reconnaissance, 35 ENVTL. SCI. & TECH. 1202, 1203 (2002).

[2] WORLD HEALTH ORG., PHARMACEUTICALS IN DRINKING WATER 15 (2012); Jeff Donn et al., Pharmawater I: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water, Affecting Wildlife and Maybe Humans, ASSOCIATED PRESS (Mar. 9, 2008), http://hosted.ap.org/ specials/interactives/pharmawater_site/day1_01.html; Matt Harvey, Your Tap Water Is Probably Laced with Antidepressants, SALON (Mar. 14, 2013), http://www.salon.com/ 2013/03/14/your_tap_water_is_probably_laced_with_anti_depressants_partner/; David Noble, Trouble at the Tap, WATER QUALITY PRODUCTS.

[3] That year Americans filled nearly four billion prescriptions.

[4] M.S. Kostich et al., Concentrations of Prioritized Pharmaceuticals in Effluents from 50 Large Wastewater Treatment Plants in the U.S. and Implications for Risk Estimation, 184 ENVTL. POLLUTION 354 (2014)

[5] See Staffan Castensson, Pharmaceutical Waste, in PHARMACEUTICALS IN THE ENVIRONMENT: SOURCES, FATE, EFFECTS AND RISK 489, 497 (Klaus Kümmerer ed., 2008) (“Pharmaceuticals are designed to be resistant to biological degredation”)

[6] Id.

[7] Christian G. Daughton & Thomas A. Ternes, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: Agents of Subtle Change?, 107 ENVTL. HEALTH PERSP. 907, 908 (1999).

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