Thursday 19 August 2021

Pharmaceutical Responsibility: Containing Contaminants in the Water Supply


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Water is an essential part of sustaining human life, but when the water supply becomes riddled with hazardous contaminants, we risk harming ourselves in addition to the environment. A 2008 story by the Associated Press captured the attention of millions of Americans, drawing attention to the long-term dangers of trace pharmaceuticals in the water supply.

An article by Indiana Lee

Studies like these beg the question: Just how safe is the water we consume every day? Let’s discover more about the link between water quality and pharmaceuticals, explore how the public can help, and learn how pharmaceutical companies can break the toxic cycle of pharmaceutical pollution when it comes to our global water supply.

The Facts on Water Quality & Pharmaceuticals

It’s difficult to pin an exact number on the quantity and type of contaminants the public could be consuming in their everyday water supply. That’s because the concentration of pharmaceuticals in the water depends on a variety of factors, including whether they’re flushed or excreted.


Another obstacle to measurement is the fact that the amount of pharmaceuticals disposed of in this way is completely unknowable. Although federal guidelines now recommend disposing of pills at secure collection sites or in the trash can, old habits die hard, and many consumers of pharmaceuticals still send unused medicine straight down the toilet.


Water treatment plants nationwide test for over 90 different contaminants per guidelines issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, conspicuously absent on this seemingly comprehensive list of contaminants is any kind of drug or pharmaceutical.


Fortunately, when excreted, most drugs have already metabolized by about 90% in the body. Another point of good news is that even though water treatment plants don’t test for drugs, studies have shown that their processes remove around 95-98% of toxins anyway.


As water quality concerns rise, however, those promising numbers are no reason to fall into complacency. Drinking water is not our only exposure to the water supply. Facilities like hospitals require copious amounts of water to function, and once contaminants enter the water supply, they become difficult to extract.


In the fish and plants we eat, we could potentially be exposed to drug residues from pollution runoff and irrigation water. No long-term studies have been conducted that document the result of trace amounts of various drug combinations entering the human body over decades. Water droplets and aerosols also spread toxins across a wide geographic area, making the impact of water contamination nearly incalculable.

What the Public Should Know

Consumers of pharmaceuticals can do their due diligence to mitigate the problems of water contamination. By properly disposing of any unused pharmaceuticals and learning about the importance of water quality, consumers can minimize their environmental impact. Healthcare practitioners can encourage patients to follow proper disposal protocols as well by providing the appropriate facilities.


Poor water quality can lead to several ailments, including E. Coli and Hepatitis A. That’s why it’s essential for homeowners who notice acidic or foul-tasting water to contact a professional immediately. A plumber or water quality professional can test your water supply for metals, microorganisms, and corrosiveness, in addition to other factors that affect water supply cleanliness.

Taking Civilian Involvement a Step Further

Cultivating an awareness of the water supply chain allows consumers to assume greater responsibility when it comes to their pharmaceutical disposal habits. For those passionate about water waste and treatment, pursuing a public health degree can lead to interesting job opportunities for graduates.

Whether these individuals find work as infection control officers, emergency management specialists, or water treatment plant operators, careers in water quality and treatment are essential to protecting public water supplies. It’s the job of water treatment plant operators, for instance, to ensure any water produced is safe for humans, animals, and the environment, all while adhering to regulations like the Safe Drinking Water Act issued by the EPA.

How Pharmaceutical Companies Can Disrupt a Harmful Pattern

Now it’s time to address the crux of the issue: the pharmaceutical companies themselves. One five-year study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey found that “effluents from two wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) that receive discharge from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities (PMFs) had 10 to 1,000 times higher concentrations of pharmaceuticals than effluents from 24 WWTPs across the nation that do not receive PMF discharge.”


Although scientific research on the subject is sparse and difficult to measure, the fact of the matter is that pharmaceuticals in the water supply negatively affect aquatic life, making it reasonable to assume the trace materials negatively impact humans as well. However, the lack of long-term studies makes it difficult to establish regulations for pharmaceutical companies.


In pharmaceutical facilities themselves, techniques can be employed to better control water quality. For example, when preparing water-for-injections, companies can choose from several water filtration techniques, all designed to minimize the risks associated with pharmaceutical water production.


The main four ways for the pharmaceutical industry to filter water are:


     Single and multiple effect distillation.

     Vapor compression distillation.


     Reverse osmosis.


Purified water is essential for many pharmaceutical productions, and in the absence of widespread guidelines on the quality of water for pharmaceutical use, any regulation helps determine the best methods for producing and filtering water.

Clean Water for a Brighter Future

To see lasting change in the water contamination caused by the pharmaceutical industry, both consumers and pharmaceutical companies must adapt their practices. Consumers can do their part by learning about the importance of water quality and changing their pill disposal habits, while pharmaceutical companies can work to reduce harmful runoff and properly filter any water they use. Together, pharmaceuticals and consumers can alleviate the stress of contaminants on our waters, ensuring a clean water supply for generations to come.


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