News Feature | June 20, 2018

National Study Examines Drugs In Wastewater

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have published a major study of how pharmaceutical companies pollute the environment by sending their wastewater to treatment plants.

“Wastewater treatment plants taking discharges from nearby pharmaceutical manufacturers have ‘substantially’ higher concentrations of drugs in the water,” Environmental Health News reported, citing the study.

The article is the first national study examining pharmaceutical manufacturer wastewater sent to treatment plants. It is the “latest evidence that manufacturers are sending high loads of their products into our waterways,” Environmental Health News continued.

The scientists concluded that pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities “are an important, national-scale source of pharmaceuticals to the environment,” according to the study, published in Science of the Total Environment.

Tia-Marie Scott, lead author of the study and physical scientist for the USGS, spoke to Environmental Health News.

"Modern wastewater treatment plants mostly reduce solids, and reduce bacteria. They were not engineered to deal with complex compounds," she said.

The researchers examined effluent from 13 wastewater plants that receive drug company discharges as well as six that do not receive them, Environmental Health News reported.

“They tested for 120 drugs and compounds formed when drugs break down. They found 33 drugs had concentrations ‘substantially higher’ in plants near drug makers,” Environmental Health News reported.

The researchers detected “antihistamines, diabetic medication, muscle relaxants, blood pressure drugs, insomnia drugs, anti-seizure medication and anti-inflammatories. Several of the drugs were found at levels hundreds of times higher near drug makers than at plants not receiving discharge,” Environmental Health News reported.

“All of these pharmaceuticals, and almost every emerging contaminant that we are looking at these days are not regulated,” Scott said, per Inside Science. “There are no thresholds for what is and what is not considered safe.”

The consequences on aquatic and human health of drugs entering the environment through wastewater treatment plants is not yet well understood, Environmental Health News reported.

Even in some of the cleanest waters in the U.S., this pollution appears to be altering the sex functions of fish. In fish populations, scientists have noted “the presence of female eggs in male testes,” indicating “some kind of hormonal confusion,” National Geographic reported.

But the effects of pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) in water may not be limited to fish. As Water Online previously reported, there is research suggesting that exposure to PPCPs in drinking water may affect human, and in particular male, reproductive systems.