Although pharmaceuticals are designed to enhance health, some have the potential
to cause problems. When outdated and unused drugs are put into trash or flushed,
they may end up in our water system and may not be eliminated by water-treatment
techniques. New programs to encourage proper disposal of unused drugs would
address just 10% of the source of the problem because 90% of drug contamination
comes from pharmaceuticals passing through the body largely unaltered and into
the sewage system.
There are about 3,000 prescription pharmaceuticals in use in
the U.S. and thousands of over-the-counter drugs, as well as the creams and ointments we apply to our skin and then shower off. Pharmaceutical pollutants are worrisome
because they are specifically designed to be metabolically active in humans.
In the 1990s, synthetic estrogens, principally from birth control pills, began showing
up in the water, leading to male fish with androgynous sex organs. It did not take
much estrogen to affect the fish — just 5 or 6 nanograms, or billionths of a gram, per
liter of lake water.
Even though very tiny amounts of many other classes of drugs
are found in many water supplies, most of these drugs are in such low concentrations
that they do not appear to have an impact on human health. Among those
drugs identified are antidepressants, anticonvulsants, tranquilizers, antibacterials,
antipsychotics, ACE inhibitors for hypertension, steroids, analgesics (like ibuprofen),
and caffeine. While short-term exposure to these drugs at thousandths of their
effective dose levels does not seem to entail a risk, there is essentially no data on
long-term low-level exposures and interactions between drugs.
Exposure to pharmaceuticals in water is largely dependent on the source of municipal
water. A study by Consumer Reports found that bottled water is not guaranteed
to be free from pharmaceuticals. Many water systems start with pure water, and
their treated wastewater does not come into contact with humans, even if it contains
traces of pharmaceuticals. But for other water systems, for example, those that take
water from the Mississippi or Colorado rivers, cleaned-up wastewater can end up in
the water supply of a city or town.
Many communities have established safe disposal systems for unused drugs. The
Food and Drug Administration’s advice for old, unused, unwanted, or expired prescription
and over the counter medicines is to drop them off at a take-back site. If
you cannot get to a take-back location or there is none near you, the FDA has a
list of medicines that can be flushed and a list of others that should be discarded
in the trash. (See https://www.fda.gov/drugs/disposal-unused-medicines-what-youshould-
This blog presents opinions and ideas and is intended to provide helpful general information. I am not engaged in rendering advice or services to the individual reader. The ideas, procedures and suggestions in that are presented are not in any way a substitute for the advice and care of the reader’s own physician or other medical professional based on the reader’s own individual conditions, symptoms or concerns. If the reader needs personal medical, health, dietary, exercise or other assistance or advice the reader should consult a physician and/or other qualified health professionals. The author specifically disclaims all responsibility for any injury, damage or loss that the reader may incur as a direct or indirect consequence of following any directions or suggestions given in this blog or participating in any programs described in this blog or in the book, The Building Blocks of Health––How to Optimize Your Health with a Lifestyle Checklist (available in print or downloaded at Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere). Copyright 2021 by J. Joseph Speidel.