How Does Prescription Drugs Get Into Our Drinking Water [New Research]
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7 Shocking Ways Prescription Drugs Can Get Into Our Drinking Water

Written by: Donavan Jones on September 26, 2019

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prescription drugs flushed down the toilet

Are you worried about Prescription Drugs In Your Drinking Water?

No, should I be?

First of all these drugs are present in trace amounts in the drinking water supply, there isn’t an imminent danger to human health. Experts are concerned about the long-term effects of repeated exposure because they have the potential to be toxic to humans.

In the western world, people expect their drink water to be safe. This is why the 2016 lead-contamination water crisis in Flint, Michigan, evoked such a widespread public and political outrage. Often overlooked, the reality that in addition to the possible presence of toxic metals, there are likely pharmaceutical drugs in our water supply.

Here’s the real shocker.

The presence of pharmaceutical drugs is not regulated in our water supply.

“People may find it hard to believe, but this country still doesn’t require our drinking water systems to remove prescription drugs from our tap water”, says Erik Olson, director of NRDC’s Health program.  He also said, “In the same way that many of our roads and bridges are falling apart, our drinking water systems are aging, and most use outdated treatment technologies that don’t remove a wide variety of today’s contaminant”.

Pharmaceutical agents include:

  • Analgesic
  • Antibiotic
  • Anticoagulant
  • Antidepressant
  • Antihistamine
  • Antihypertensive drugs
  • Hormones (from oral contraceptives and hormone therapy)
  • Muscle Relaxants

Pharmaceutical drugs include:

  • Lithium (used to treat bipolar disorder)
  • Carbamazepine (an analgesic/anticonvulsant)
  • Metoprolol (an antihypertensive)
  • Buproprion (an antidepressant)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who should be safeguarding our water supply, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who regulate the pharmaceutical industry do not collaborate. If they worked together, we might have a chance at preventing our water supply from being contaminated by drugs. But, until that time, you need to do your own research on your drinking water to protect yourself and your family.

Table Of Contents:

1. Flushing Prescription Drugs

One of the ways prescription drugs can get into our water supply is that people are flushing their unused and expired prescriptions down the toilet. These prescription drugs dissolve in the wastewater and become too fine to be caught in the city sewer filtration system and the water from the sewage is filtered and chlorinated but the prescription drugs remain in the water.

2. Human Excretion

The less obvious way that prescription drugs get into the water supply is that people who take prescription drugs cannot metabolize the entire pill. Roughly about a quarter of that drug isn’t metabolized and gets flushed down the toilet after they use the restroom. The prescription drugs make its way into the sewer system that ultimately makes into our water supply.

3. Animal Excretion

Factory farms are another source of prescription drug runoff. These factory-farmed animals are given a cocktail of antibiotics, powerful steroidal growth hormones, and other drugs in concentration to maximize the health and size of the animal. Just as we saw in humans, farm animals also cannot metabolize the entire pill. Since factory farms are a big business and they raise a lot of animals, the waste the animals create will eventually get into our soil and water table.

chicken farm


4. Leaching From Municipal Landfills

A huge problem arising from landfills is the discharge of leachate which is formed by water passing through them and becoming contaminated with a wide range of organic and inorganic pollutants. Pharmaceutical drugs are one of these pollutants. The subsequent movement of the leachate into the surrounding soil, groundwater, or surface water could lead to severe pollution problems.

landfill leeching


5. Washing Your Body

An increasing number of medications are applied as creams, lotions, and shampoos, and the unabsorbed portions of those medications can contribute to the pollution problem when they get washed off. It’s been calculated, for example, that one mans’ use of testosterone cream can wind up putting as much of the hormone into the water as the natural excretions from 300 men.

6. Health Care Institutions

Health care institutions are another source of pharmaceutical water pollution. Hospitals are less of a problem than nursing homes because they typically have on-site pharmacies with arrangements in place to return unused drugs to manufactures for credit or disposal but nursing homes are often guilty of flushing medications down the drain. Typically, they don’t have the same kind of return arrangments as hospitals. The rules for getting rid of opioid painkillers are tough, which make disposal down the toilet an acceptable option, have inadvertently encouraged some nursing homes to dispose of all their leftover medications that way.

7. Drug Manufacturing

Drug manufacturing also results in some pharmaceutical pollution, although some factories are bigger problems than others. For example, a U.S. Geological Survey study found contamination levels downstream from two large drug manufacturing plants in New York State that were 10 to 1,000 times higher than those comparable facilities around the country.

Medicine spilling out of four bottles


The EPA Findings

  • Opioids, acid reflux and congestive heart failure prescription drugs were common
  • Over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and ibuprofen were common
  • The highest prescription drug levels were high blood pressure drugs


Since these drugs are present in trace amounts in the water supply, there isn’t an imminent danger to human health. Experts are concerned about the long-term effects from repeated exposure because they have the potential to bioaccumulate and be toxic to humans, according to a scientific review by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK.

“A bigger concern is the possibility that some of these drugs that are in the drinking water could interact with medications people are taking intentionally”, says Ted Schettler, science director of the Science & Environmental Health Network.

To prevent this problem from getting worse, it is important for you to dispose of your unused medication properly. Don’t flush them down the toilet but, mix them with coffee grounds and put them in a sealed plastic bag and place them in the trash.

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Donavan Jones

About Donavan Jones

Donavan Jones is the web master at Florida Water Analysis. He’s an expert in inbound marketing, lead generation, graphic design, and coding. In his spare time, Donavan is developing a video game with his friends and family.