Drugs in Our Water: What?!

Drugs in Our Water: What?!

Iman Kashif - 3 September 2021

Drugs don’t belong in water, which is why the worry about the occurrence of drugs in water bodies and drinking water is well-justified. Pharmaceutical drugs can simply enter the water supply through a range of different processes, and wastewater treatment plants do not minimize their entry, as many pharmaceuticals surpass the plants. So what are the adverse effects of these drugs contaminating water? Let’s take a look.


Pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals can seep into water through a variety of ways; flushing of unused over-the-counter drugs, human excretion, washing off skincare products such as lotion, the spraying of perfume, etc. According to WebMD, Sarah Janssen, MD, PHD, MPH states that since the late 1990s, the science community has recognized that pharmaceuticals, especially oral contraceptives, are found in sewage water and are potentially contaminating drinking water.” The WHO describes the amount of these drugs/chemicals to be “typically at levels in the nanograms to low micrograms per litre range,” displaying their small - but still existing - presence in water.

Various Effects

There is very little evidence and research that suggests that pharmaceuticals in water have a direct impact on human health. However, there is evidence that shows that the effects on aquatic animals are nowhere as minimal. Much of the bearers of the effects consist of fish species, an example being the prevalence of estrogen causing male fish to “feminize” (display typical genetic female fish characteristics) (Harvard Health Publishing, 2011) and ultimately creating an imbalance in the ratio of female and male fish. Estrogen can enter water through the flushing of birth control pills, female excretion, and other hormonal treatments.

Additionally, effects on the environment can directly be examined. Wastewater treatment plants as well as sewage treatment plants are not primarily designed to extract pharmaceuticals from water, but the drugs are sometimes stripped away while the water undergoes other treatment processes. Although the washing away of drugs can occur in water treatment plants through the use of chlorine (75% decrease in the amounts of acetaminophen, carbamazepine), this is typically seen in sewage treatment facilities where one can see approximately a 90% decrease in ibuprofen and naproxen amounts after water leaves the treatment system. This extraction of pharmaceuticals can increase the amount of sludge produced at the sewage treatment plant. A portion of that sludge may be used as fertilizer for various uses, therefore contaminating the environment.

So What Now?

There are many diverse ways to reduce the number of pharmaceuticals drained away into the water system. Some of these methods are included in the following:

  • Self-limiting the amount of drugs flushed down the toilet or drain

  • Limiting large purchases of pharmaceuticals that may likely be thrown away later

  • Properly disposing of pharmaceuticals in the garbage as opposed to flushing down the train or toilet

Fortunately, steps are already being taken in order to reduce the impacts of pharmaceuticals in the water supply. According to Harvard Health Publishing, The Natural Resources Defence Council of the United States has made the objective of producing ‘eco-friendly’ drugs clear to producers. The EPA has also taken steps in this matter; by involving public schooling, forming productive partnerships with like-minded organizations, monitoring the water supply, and adding pharmaceuticals to its ‘watch-list’ of potentially dangerous adulterants.