Report Raises Concerns about Pharmaceuticals in the Environment

As a former journalist turned magazine editor, I often feel like laughing (or groaning) when a new media investigation “reveals” something that isn’t exactly hidden.

by James Laughlin

As a former journalist turned magazine editor, I often feel like laughing (or groaning) when a new media investigation “reveals” something that isn’t exactly hidden.

I felt that way after reading about the Associated Press’ five-month investigation that found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of some major metropolitan areas. Released in early March, the report was featured on the nightly network news programs and even led the evening news on one of my local TV stations.

While the presence of these compounds in our waterways is not new, new monitoring systems have been developed that can detect concentrations measured at levels of parts per billion or parts per trillion. The AP pointed to wastewater treatment plant discharges, failing septic systems and animal feedlots as sources of pharmaceuticals.

The water industry has been studying this problem for years and it’s a common topic at industry events. The Water Environment Federation has been active in researching and discussing problems related to “microconstituents” and other emerging contaminants of concern. In November last year the WEF Board of Trustees developed a Position Statement on Microconstituents in the Environment.

WEF defines microconstituents as natural and manmade substances, including elements and inorganic and organic chemicals. Sources can include pharmaceutical and personal care products, pesticides, and industrial chemicals. The association’s position statement focuses on the need for monitoring, assessment and prevention.

It’s a complex problem and a byproduct of modern life. I’m reminded of a television show where a character flushed pills down a toilet. Obviously that’s a bad thing. Consumers should be encouraged to properly dispose of prescription medicines.

Unfortunately, most pharmaceutical contaminants in our water don’t get there by flushing pills – they’re carried in the normal byproducts of life and therefore inextricably mixed with the wastewater flow. I don’t expect to see that change. Given our aging population, we will probably see more drugs flowing out of us and into the environment.

AP noted in its series that the low level contamination found during its study did not pose a threat to human health. One can only hope that will continue to be the case.

Clearly the industry must continue to monitor the problem. The scientific community will have to determine what impact, if any, the various contaminants have on the environment in general and humans in particular, and then industry must develop methods to remove those contaminants of greatest concern. And the really nasty ones should be taken off the market and out of the picture.

It’s likely to be a challenge that will continue into the foreseeable future.

WEF has established a page on its website to share information on microconstituents. The page includes the association’s position statement, technical practice updates, a collection of literature on the topic, and links to further resources. The page can be found under the Science & Technology Resources tab at

James Laughlin, Editor

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