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 Are pharmaceuticals present in the environment?

Due to new assessment techniques, pharmaceuticals are now being detected in water and soil by scientists worldwide.  A 2002 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study found organic wastewater contaminants (OWCs), including many pharmaceutical and personal care product contaminants, in 80 percent of 139 streams sampled in 30 states.i

Pharmaceuticals enter wastewater treatment plants through either excretion or disposal of unused medications.  These pharmaceutical compounds may not be completely degraded at the wastewater treatment plant. 

While pharmaceuticals and OWCs have been found primarily in effluent and surface water, emerging research is showing the presence of pharmaceutical components in biosolids and soil.ii

How do pharmaceuticals enter the environment?

Residential, commercial, and agricultural pharmaceuticals can follow two primary pathways to the environment:

  1. Excretion: Human and livestock excretion of drugs and metabolites following consumption (which ultimately follows sewage, septic or surface runoff pathways to wastewater or to biosolids).
  2. Direct Disposal: Disposal of unused pharmaceuticals to the septic tank, sewer or landfill.

If disposed of or excreted to the sewer, pharmaceuticals are sent to wastewater treatment plants that offer primary, secondary or tertiary treatment levels.  Regardless of the level of treatment, most conventional wastewater treatment cannot effectively eliminate pharmaceutical compounds.

Landfill leachate can contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals as well.  Often this leachate is sent to the same wastewater treatment systems that receive residential wastewater.  Pharmaceuticals have been detected in landfill leachateiii, so disposal of pharmaceuticals at engineered landfills may merely postpone pollution of surface water and ground water. 

As a result, incineration is currently the best method for destruction of unwanted pharmaceuticals.  Many cities, counties and states are struggling to prevent and remove pharmaceuticals in both wastewater and solid waste.


What is the concern about pharmaceuticals in the environment?

Researchers suspect that hormones and pharmaceutical compounds in the water may be responsible for effects on wildlife including feminization of male fish, sluggish activity or reduced appetite.iv Short and long term human health effects are currently unknown.

In addition, pharmaceutical use in the general population is growing, so more unwanted drugs are generated creating increased environmental concerns.  In 2005 the average prescription rate in Washington was 8.5 prescriptions per capita per year, totaling 53 million retail prescriptions.v

Why are pharmaceuticals considered dangerous waste?

Many pharmaceuticals have ingredients with characteristics that cause them to designate as dangerous waste when disposed.  Pharmaceuticals can designate as a federal hazardous waste or a Washington state-only dangerous waste. 

Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA): Federally regulated hazardous waste includes lists of certain discarded chemical products and wastes with hazardous characteristics such as ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. 

State Dangerous Waste Regulations (WAC 173-303):  As a delegated authority to enforce RCRA, the Washington State Department of Ecology has additional criteria for toxicity and persistence that make many pharmaceuticals a dangerous waste.

Dangerous waste regulations apply to pharmaceuticals when a decision is made that they are not usable for intended purpose and it is not a viable product.

iKolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Meyer, M.T., Thurman, E.M., Zaugg, S.D., Barber, L.B., and Buxton, H.T., 2002, Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in U.S. streams, 1999-2000--A national reconnaissance: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 36, no. 6, p. 1202-1211.
ii Study finds chemicals in biosolids. SUSAN GORDON; The News Tribune Last updated: September 18th, 2006.  (note: Scientific assessment of the fate of pharmaceuticals in air has not been published.)
iii K. Barnes, S. Christenson et.al. Spring 2004 "Pharmaceuticals and Other Organic Waste Water Contaminants Within a Leachate Plume Downgradient of a Municipal Landfill" Ground Water Monitoring and Remediation 24, No.2 pages 119-126.
iv Juliet Eilperin, “Pharmaceuticals in Waterways Raise Concern” Washington Post June 23, 2005.
v http://statehealthfacts.org