Pharmaceutical Drugs Found in America’s Tap Water: Should You Be Concerned?

Pharmaceuticals. They help prevent, cure, and alleviate various diseases and ailments, saving millions of lives and helping people recover. But little did we know that tiny doses of these life-saving compounds would be another set of contaminants polluting our nation’s drinking water?

As you probably know, whatever the body doesn’t end up using, it excretes through body waste, such as sweat and urine. That means when you take a drug, the unmetabolized portion of it passes from your body into the sewer, then into nearby streams, rivers, and other surface waters. Now imagine the combined amount and diverse chemical nature of pharmaceuticals possibly being released by your neighbors, your friends a few blocks away, and strangers far and wide across the city. And since Americans are taking more drugs than ever, we could be in for an even rockier ride.

You might be tempted to dismiss this scary reality as a conspiracy theory, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed that a slew of unregulated pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PCPs) have been found in America’s drinking water, in greater doses, more than ever before. One study even found pharmaceuticals in treated tap water being supplied to more than 41 million Americans.

To better understand the problem at hand and figure out how best to approach it, let’s start by defining pharmaceuticals.

What are pharmaceuticals?

When we fall ill, we usually have to visit the doctor, who may need to prescribe pharmaceutical drugs (what we know as ‘medicine’) to treat us and help us feel better. These drugs are designed to prevent, diagnose, treat, and cure various kinds of mental or physical disorders or human and animal diseases.

Sources of pharmaceuticals in drinking water

By now, you might be wondering, “How on earth do medical drugs get into our drinking water?” It’s simple. Pharmaceuticals enter our drinking water through two primary mediums: excretion and disposal.


When a drug is ingested, it is metabolized (at least some of it). The unmetabolized portion is eventually excreted, along with metabolites, which may still be active. The amount that our bodies break down varies from drug to drug and from person to person.

For many medications, only 90 percent is metabolized. Others aren’t metabolized as much, so the body excretes a lot of the parent compound. The undigested drugs and metabolites are discharged from the body as waste. And of course, they are either flushed down the toilets or washed down the drain in our showers. Once these chemicals leave our homes, they often leach into sewage treatment systems.

Sewage and septic systems are known to overflow or leak occasionally. When either happens, the chemicals typically flow into surface waters, like rivers, streams, lakes, and other water bodes. They may also seep into the soil then into groundwater sources. Considering that community water systems obtain water from groundwater and surface water, don’t be surprised that pharmaceuticals are detected in drinking water. Besides, people who rely on water from private wells also suffer the same fate, as groundwater is typically used to supply water to wells.

You may think that these hazardous substances would be routinely filtered out at wastewater treatment facilities. However, most of these plants do not have the proper filtering mechanisms required to detect and remove them at increasingly low levels. Because drug concentrations often vary, from one water source to another, and from plant to plant, there’s no way to remove medical drugs using a one-size-fits-all approach, like many other wastewater treatment processes. Consequently, the chemicals wind up in our homes then our drinking glass.

Improper Disposal

According to scientists, the vast majority of pharmaceuticals polluting our drinking water come through improper waste disposal. Wastewater from manufacturing sites typically goes into treatment plants. Some of the compounds in the water may be biologically active, toxic, or persistent. Very little is known about the extent of water contamination from the pharmaceutical industry, because, as you know, most companies do not disclose details about their manufacturing activities or the identities of the compounds they use. But thanks to several hardworking scientists who have some insight into the effluent concentrations being produced and released by pharma manufacturing facilities (PMFs), we now have an idea of what’s going on behind the curtains.

The scientists examined effluent from two separate wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) that collect discharge from PMFs. Shockingly, they found that the effluent from these WWTPs had 10 to 1000 times higher levels of pharmaceuticals than that from 24 WWPTs across the country that do not receive PMF discharge. The researchers also discovered that the wastewater from the two WWTPs was discharged into streams where the measured pharmaceuticals were traced downstream, as far as 30 kilometers from one plant’s outfall. Based on these findings, it’s clear that a single company can impact millions of Americans’ drinking water resources.


Another source of pharmaceutical pollution of drinking water is agribusiness. If you have basic knowledge about the livestock industry, you know that antibiotics and drugs are regularly administered to livestock. Worse, runoff from animal-feeding operations often include pharmaceuticals, such as acetaminophen, cotinine, caffeine, diphenhydramine, carbamazepine, etc., as reported in a USGS report.

Pharmaceuticals can also enter food and drinking water through fertilizer. Many wastewater treatment plants sell their filtered sludge to agricultural farms to be used as fertilizer. If that sludge contains high levels of pharmaceuticals, they can seep into groundwater when it rains, or make their way into crops, and thus, to your dinner table.

Other Sources

Several other ways pharmaceuticals get into drinking water include:

  • Illegal drug use
  • Human activity (shaving, bathing, swimming, etc.)
  • Residue from hospitals
  • Veterinary drug use, particularly steroids and antibiotics

How drugs in water affect public health

Scientists have somewhat ruled out the possibility of pharmaceuticals adversely affecting human health (at least in the short term), as concentrations of medical drugs found in water are much lower than the minimum therapeutic dose. However, the long-term impacts are currently unknown and unmeasured. But given the limited occurrence data available for the diverse group of pharmaceuticals in use today and their active metabolites, who knows what could happen?

After all, some medications have been found in water at higher concentrations, and some are known to bioaccumulate and persist. For instance, you could ingest a full dose of lisinopril (a blood pressure medication) approximately a year through your tap water.

In general, people drink water every day. And there might be sensitive stages of one’s life when it’s crucial to minimize exposure to certain pharmaceuticals. Plus, toxic combinations of these drugs may compound in our body over time. They may disrupt how our body works and functions daily. Our development and growth processes could change, resulting in diseases and other chronic health conditions. And with increased exposure to certain medications like antibiotics, the bacteria killed by those medicines could become resistant, rendering them ineffective. Again, nothing is final, and more research is needed to provide substantial evidence. In the meantime, it’s always best to remain cautious – especially pregnant women, young children, and the elderly.

How does it affect the freshwater environment?

The inability to remove effectively pharmaceutical drugs from wastewater treatment systems poses a potential risk to aquatic animals and the wider environment. Although these contaminants are detected in the freshwater environment at low concentrations, many of them and their metabolites are biologically active. They can impact precious non-target aquatic organisms, especially fish and algae. Mixtures of these chemicals are even more toxic to marine life, causing restricted reproduction and developing embryos with developmental problems and deformations.

How to remove pharmaceutical drugs from your water supply

With drug use expected to increase exponentially in America and many new types of medicines on the verge of being introduced to the market, there’s never a more crucial time to start figuring out ways to help reduce the unknown risks of pharmaceuticals in your water supply.

Now, boiling your tap water won’t get rid of the medicines, and buying bottled water certainly won’t solve the problem. However, some advanced water treatment processes, such as reverse osmosis and activated carbon filtration, can achieve high removal rates for targeted pharmaceutical compounds in water. Of course, these technologies are costly for large-scale use. But thankfully, homeowners (like yourself) can benefit from home water filtering systems, like the high-performance Springwell SWRO reverse osmosis systems and the Springwell CF1 whole-house filtration system.

The Springwell SWRO Reverse Osmosis Filters

The SWRO systems are under-counter filters that use reverse osmosis (RO), one of the most powerful water filtration technologies. These filters remove more than 99 percent of pharmaceutical drugs in water, and many other dangerous contaminants, such as lead, iron, chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, fluoride, arsenic, and many more.

These Springwell systems are point-of-use (POU) filters, meaning you can install them at specific faucets in your home where you need clean, high-quality drinking water. What’s also impressive about these RO systems is that they can fit neatly under your kitchen sink, entirely out of view. Also, they provide about 75 gallons of treated water per day.

In terms of filtration, the SWRO filters use an exhaustive four-stage filtering process to eliminate all kinds of contaminants from water. When unfiltered water enters the system, the sediment filter removes all the dirt, debris, sand, small stones, rust, and other larger sediments. Next, the carbon filter uses carbon filtration to remove chlorine, chloramine, herbicides, pesticides, and other contaminants. The reverse osmosis filter then filters out heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, iron, fluoride, aluminum, etc. And finally, a carbon filter is used to finalize the cleaning phase and remove the contaminants that have made it through the first three stages.

The Springwell CF1 Activated Carbon Whole-House Filtration System

The Springwell CF1 is a more all-round water treatment system, in terms of the amount of water it filters. As ‘whole-house’ suggests, it is a point-of-entry system that filters all the water coming into your house. Two main things that set this unit apart from other types of filtration systems are its impeccable design and remarkable filtering capacity.

The system uses top-quality catalytic coconut shell carbon, certified KDF media, Springwell’s ActivFlo technology, and other related features and functions to remove waterborne contaminants. Some of these pollutants include chlorine, chloramine, pharmaceuticals, PFOA, PFOS, VOCs, TTHM, MTBE, lead, iron, pesticides, herbicides, haloacetic acids, and many more.

It filters water through a rigorous four-stage filtration process to provide better-tasting water, cleaner, and better-tasting food, etc. Aside from that, the system has a 5-micron sediment prefilter that blocks out the tiniest impurities. This sediment filter allows the remaining filters can significantly improve the quality of water for the whole house. Plus, if you’re experiencing problems with bacteria and other unwanted pathogens in your water, you can add Springwell’s state-of-the-art Blackcomb 5.1 UV system add-on to the CF1. The UV system destroys harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses, etc.

Hands down, the CF1 and the SWRO systems produce some of the safest and highest-quality water possible in a home water treatment system. Apart from the fact that you won’t ever have to worry about drugs in your water, you’ll see the difference in your water quality immediately or over time. Your water will taste and smell better, your baths and showers will be much healthier, and your hair and skin will feel softer and cleaner. It may also increase the value of your home!

Why Springwell?

When you purchase any of our filtering systems directly from us, you get a lifetime warranty, a six-month money-back guarantee, free shipping, and over 50 percent in factory-direct savings. We also offer an excellent financing option so you can shop now and pay later with affordable monthly payments.

Two easy ways to reduce your pharmaceutical footprint

Even after purchasing one of our premium water filtration systems, there are still more proactive solutions to help keep pharmaceutical drugs from entering our waterways in the first place.

  • Make sure to never dump your drugs in the toilet or down the sink when you use them or when they expire. Be sure to return your medication to the pharmacy or other places that have drug recycling programs. This ensures that the chemicals and products are disposed of safely and adequately, and don’t enter our water.
  • If you are a farmer or you know someone who is, ensure that fertilizer runoff doesn’t end up in the water system.

Final Thoughts

Pharmaceuticals are on the rise in America and are polluting the nation’s drinking water at an alarming rate. While scientists have found no evidence suggesting that they affect human health (at least short term), it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

If you have any questions or concerns about how our filtering systems can preserve or improve your home’s water quality, please head over to our contact page and reach out to us using one of the available contact mediums. One of our friendly and professional representatives will be available to provide specific, expert guidance, and information.