Hidden among the well-known problems faced by water professionals — aging infrastructure, dwindling supply — is another emerging issue: rising amounts of pharmaceutical compounds in surface water and drinking water. And, considering the increasing numbers of people being treated with drugs at earlier ages and an aging population taking multiple medications for a variety of health conditions, more of those compounds likely will find their way into the nation’s wastewater facilities.
Early signs of the problem were discovered in US Geological Survey (USGS) research in 1999. Of the 60 pharmaceuticals the agency was testing for, it found 30 of them in 139 streams in 30 states. In addition, 80 percent of the streams had one or more contaminants, 54 percent had five or more, and 13 percent showed 20 or more.
“We can measure over 150 compounds in water alone,” says Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist and member of the USGS study team. “Now, the big question is, what kind of environmental consequences [do they pose] to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and, maybe in the long term, even human health. We just don’t know what the exposure risk is to many of these compounds.”