Pharmaceuticals in our Water - How Do We Fix It?


Pharmaceuticals in our water supply is a complex issue that remains the focus of sustained, continued study. With the use of pharmaceuticals growing worldwide, it’s no surprise that we’re finding more and more of them in the environment. Most of the world's wastewater is cleaned via wastewater treatment plants, but current technologies for treating waste and drinking water are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals. In a 2011 report, WHO estimated that conventional water treatment plants might remove anywhere from less than 20 to more than 90 percent of the pharmaceuticals compounds present. So there is a huge potential for pharmaceutical drug residues to be present in treated municipal wastewater.

Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals have been reported in the water cycle, including surface waters, wastewater, and groundwater and, to a lesser extent, drinking-water. Detection of low-level concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water has raised interest in finding their adverse effects on human health and finding safe ways to dispose of unwanted, unused medications. However, despite a large volume of scientific research, the definitive risks of active pharmaceutical ingredients to human health are largely unknown. But studies have shown their adverse effects on aquatic life. Over the last decade, scientists have proven that the drugs are creating "intersex" fish, with males developing eggs in their testes, which can put many of these species at risk.

Water quality experts and environmental advocates are increasingly concerned about chemicals from prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications getting into lakes, rivers, and streams. A big concern is the amounts of endocrine disruptors, which come from a variety of agricultural, industrial, and domestic sources, including pharmaceuticals. These chemicals can cause issues with biological processes regulated by hormones, such as development, growth, and reproduction. These chemicals include common medications including birth control pills.

The presence of pharmaceuticals in water, even at very low concentrations, are concerning for drinking-water regulators, governments, water suppliers and public health advocates. For this purpose, Drug take-back programs are being launched, which allow people to drop off their unused medications at central locations. These kinds of programs have begun to pop up all over the United States in an effort to mitigate pharmaceuticals in our water supply. These programs help to prevent the amount of unused drugs  that enter our water supply. While, these programs are a start there is still much work to be done on this topic. 

New guidelines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discourage hospitals and nursing homes from flushing unused drugs down the drain or toilet. This proactive approach can also help mitigate the amount of pharmaceuticals in our water streams. Disposal for individuals also discourages flushing most, but not all, unused drugs. Pharmaceutical companies are also working to improve their manufacturing processes and environmental footprint. Wastewater treatment plants should also explore possibilities for boosting their ability to remove pharmaceuticals from sewage by utilizing new innovations in water treatment. 

Advanced technologies are slowly emerging in the wastewater treatment market. These new technologies have the capability to filter out and clean a majority of the most common pharmaceuticals found in the waste streams. Active Water Solutions recently launched a new product that allows for high level of pharmaceutical removal from waste streams. This advanced technology can help prevent environmental issues that many of our cities face today. 

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