Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water: Should I Be Worried?


Pharmaceutical water pollution is becoming an increasing problem. Find out why in today’s article.


You go to the doctor for any number of reasons and he/she prescribes something to make you feel better. This is a common occurrence in modern day life. Sometimes, people choose to go a different route because they don’t trust pharmaceuticals; this is a personal choice.

That choice, however, has been take out of our hands. Each one of us consumes trace elements of various pharmaceuticals every day. There is pharmaceutical pollution in our drinking water—it’s a fact. But should you be worried?

The Problem

People take pharmaceuticals for high blood pressure, headaches, influenza, depression and a whole host of other reasons. Their bodies incorporate the medicine into their systems and then excrete the leftovers.


These leftovers are then transported back into the environment and we end up with pharmaceuticals in our drinking water. This results in trace amounts of that medicine ending up in your tap and eventually into your glass. Trace amounts couldn’t be that bad, right?

These trace amounts are affecting wildlife in surprising ways, for example, male fish are becoming females and the male-to-female ratio is becoming increasingly unbalanced. These pharmaceuticals in the water have had a definite and negative effect on aquatic life, and while we don’t know the long-term effects on humans yet, we do know that it won’t be positive.

The Source

Although it is hard to calculate the exact figures, the answer is relatively simple. What is the source of the large amounts of pharmaceutical drugs in our drinking water? We are. Unlike many other toxins that might seep into our water through the negligence of big companies, the only way that this medicine enters our water is through those that use these types of medicines.

A medication collection program in California showed in 2007 that at least half of all the medicine that is bought, will be discarded at some point. There are also increasing amounts of pharmaceutical products in our lotions, perfumes, soaps etc. These are then washed off our body straight into the water pipes. For example, it has been estimated that testosterone cream used by one man equals the natural testosterone excretions of 300 men.


Another source is medical health facilities. Hospitals usually have a return policy on unused medicine, but some hospitals and nursing homes are guilty of simply flushing the unused products down the toilet. This is not a good idea.

Some drug manufacturing companies are also partly responsible, although the figures vary from company to company. Our agricultural livestock, that produces 2 trillion tons of waste every year, is another source. The hormones and medicines that are used on livestock also end up in the water.

How it Affects Us

Problems are already rearing their heads in the sense that many people can’t use certain types of pharmaceuticals simply because they are allergic to them. So, you could take a tablet for a headache, along with a few other people, and that brand of medicine is now in the water. Now, someone drinks a glass of water, they cannot take that tablet because they are allergic to that brand, but now they get an unhealthy dose of an allergen that they have successfully avoided —until now.


It isn’t just us that are being affected by this; aquatic life is impacted in the biggest way. We are unsure about the effects on humans, but the effect on the environment is alarming. Intersex fish, unbalanced male-to-female ratios and affected brain tissue are just a few of the problems quickly rising to the surface.

With all these effects on wildlife coming to the fore, it begs the question: How long until it begins affecting us?

How Bad is it?

The US Geological Survey found measurable amounts of medicine in 80% of the samples they extracted from 139 streams in 30 states in 1999 and 2000. A toxic mix of drugs was discovered including high blood pressure medicine, antidepressants and several estrogen-toting drugs including contraceptive tablets. Countless studies have been done since, and one conclusive fact is becoming prevalent—the number of pharmaceuticals in our water is rising.

What is Being Done About it?

The EPA is imposing stricter regulations on pharmaceuticals and has launched a 4-pronged attack on this problem including public awareness. Flushing of unused pharmaceuticals is also strongly discouraged, and many medical facilities have switched to a return policy which returns the pharmaceuticals to the companies.

The EPA has also added 10 pharmaceuticals to their watch list for further and extensive investigation to see whether they are harmful or not.

How Can You Help?

  • Don’t buy in bulk. The price might be right, but the impact is not. Big bottles of unused pills are more likely to end up in the water.
  • Take it back. In 2010, a law was passed making it easy to return unused pharmaceuticals. Many communities have a drug take-back day; with a little research, it shouldn’t be hard to find one in your area.
  • Don’t flush them or pour them down the drain. This is the biggest contributor to the problem, but in extreme cases, you should do it. If you have certain, powerful medicines and are worried about overdoses or illicit usage and you can’t find a drug take-back organization, then you might have to. Keep in mind that this is only in extreme cases.
  • Be mindful of throwing it away. Throwing unused medication away is preferable to flushing it away since it will probably end up in a landfill or being incinerated. Even so, you need to take a few precautions. Peel off the label, crush the medicine and mix it with sawdust or cat litter so that an animal or person won’t accidentally consume it.


The truth is that we don’t know the exact repercussions of pharmaceutical water pollution on humans, but we do know that it is already having a negative impact on wildlife. Do your part to inform others, stay knowledgeable and reduce your pharmaceutical footprint.

If you’re worried about the effect of drugs in drinking water, then besides being careful with your pharmaceutical use you should also use an effective home water filter. RO systems are one of the most effective types at removing pharmaceuticals from water. Check out our reverse osmosis reviews to find out more.

Hi I'm Jamie, teacher and owner/chief contributor at We strive to bring you the most informative water filter reviews in the most intuitive and user friendly way. Besides offering advice on the water filter to suit your needs, we also post topical articles on water pollution and the environment. Stay connected and follow us on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and more!

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