In order to ensure the sustainability of potable water, wastewater treatment plants continuously work to treat and return clean water back into our waterways and safely into the environment. It’s a mutually beneficial process for wildlife and our drinking water supply. Using advanced technology, wastewater treatment plants separate and remove harmful waste to purify water.

While these plants are effective at removing harmful, organic waste, a challenge that has presented itself in the past 30 years is how to cost-effectively and efficiently remove chemical compounds that derive from pharmaceuticals in wastewater.

How Prevalent are Pharmaceuticals in Our Water Today?

Numerous reports have surfaced in the last 15 years about pharmaceutical chemicals being found in waterways and drinking water supplies. Whereas the effects of these chemicals have been minimal to human consumption, adverse effects have been identified in aquatic wildlife surrounding these waterways.

In the United States, pharmaceuticals in drinking and wastewater are less of a problem than in other countries with higher population densities and lower access to drinking water. However, according to a Consumer Reports survey in 2017, the U.S. remains a highly medicated country, with 55 percent of Americans regularly taking prescription medicine.

The number of prescriptions filled has almost doubled in the past 25 years, from 2.4 billion in 1997 to 4.5 billion in 2016. While having access to affordable medication has helped the health of many U.S. citizens, it has caused an increase in the amount of unused or outdated prescriptions we throw away.

How Do Pharmaceuticals Get Into Our Water?

Pharmaceutical chemicals can end up in water from a variety of sources. Three significant contributors are pharmaceutical manufacturers, human or animal excrement and improper disposal of medication. 

  • Pharmaceutical manufacturer disposal. Wastewater sampled from the waterways near pharmaceutical manufacturing plants is known for having higher concentrations in the water, even after treatment. 
    • In a study, researchers found that effluents from plants that treated pharmaceutical manufacturer discharge had substantially higher concentrations of pharmaceutical chemicals than the effluent from domestic wastewater.
  • Animal and human excrement. Whenever we ingest medications, our bodies can only metabolize a percentage of the chemicals, excreting the rest. Excess chemicals from prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs can pass through our bodies and end up in wastewater. 
    • The same thing happens when we give animals and livestock medication or growth hormones. When they die or pass the metabolite, the chemicals then go into the waterways and groundwater. 
    • Topical medications, sunscreens, perfumes, colognes and other skin applications can end up in waterways. 
    • Caffeine is another chemical found in wastewater since our bodies don’t use all of the caffeine we ingest. 

Improper disposal of drugs. A common way to dispose of drugs is by flushing them down the toilet. Although this may seem like an easy solution, the environmental repercussions should not be ignored.

How Are Wastewater Treatment Plants and Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Addressing this Problem?

As the problem of pharmaceuticals in wastewater becomes more prevalent, methods of removing these substances are being explored.

Although wastewater facilities are designed to handle biological compounds and organic matter, chemicals do not break down as well because they are more stable and non-biodegradable.

The three most common methods of chemical removal are: 

  • Thermal Oxidation: An incineration of pharmaceutical wastewater that ensures the complete destruction of active pharmaceutical ingredients. It is an effective but expensive and energy-intensive process.
  • Advanced Oxidation: A process that uses chemicals to oxidize pharmaceutical compounds in wastewater into smaller organic molecules. This process can be effective at treating some pharmaceutical ingredients but can produce dangerous byproducts.
  • Activated Carbon Filtering absorbs natural and synthetic material, catching both organic waste and chemical waste. The downside is that it’s expensive and requires regular replacement. 

One of the new methods of treatment is the electrochemical advanced oxidation process (EAOP). This process uses electricity as a catalyst to generate mixed oxidants that can oxidize pollutants to a trace amount while creating less harsh chemicals as a byproduct.

What Are Some Ways You Can Help Alleviate Pharmaceutical Pollution?

While pharmaceutical companies and wastewater treatment plants are working on solutions to remove these chemicals, there are things you can do to lower the pharmaceuticals in the environment.

  • Safely dispose of your unused or expired medications. Flushing them down the toilet is not proper disposal. Most states and cities have designated drug drop-offs or disposals. If you are unsure how to dispose of your medications, check online to find best practices or recommendations.
  • Don’t buy too many pharmaceuticals at once. While bulk prices can make buying large quantities tempting, don’t buy more than you need.

Are you looking for expert water and wastewater operations and management to offer solutions for the expanding challenges water utilities face? Contact Alliance Water Resources to find out how we can optimize your water and wastewater operations.