Processing Magazine

Tons of released drugs taint US water

April 20, 2009
U.S. manufacturers, including major pharmaceutical companies, have legally released at least 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals into waterways that often provide drinking water — contamination the federal government has consistently overlooked, according to the Associated Press. In the AP investigation, federal and industry officials say they don''t know the extent to which pharmaceuticals are released by U.S. manufacturers because no one tracks them — as drugs. But a close analysis of 20 years of federal records found that, in fact, the government unintentionally keeps data on a few, allowing a glimpse of the pharmaceuticals coming from factories. As part of its ongoing PharmaWater investigation about trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, AP identified 22 compounds that show up on two lists: the EPA monitors them as industrial chemicals that are released into rivers, lakes and other bodies of water under federal pollution laws, while the Food and Drug Administration classifies them as active pharmaceutical ingredients. The data doesn''t show precisely how much of the 271 million pounds comes from pharmaceutical companies versus other manufacturers. Pharmaceutical companies have dismissed the suggestion that their manufacturing contributes significantly to what''s being found in water. Federal drug and water regulators agree. Last year, the AP reported that trace amounts of a wide range of pharmaceuticals have been found in American drinking water supplies. Some scientists say that wherever researchers look, they will find pharma-tainted water. The AP also found that an estimated 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals and contaminated packaging are thrown away each year by hospitals and long-term care facilities. Utilities say the water is safe. Scientists, doctors and the EPA say there are no confirmed human risks associated with consuming minute concentrations of drugs. Two common industrial chemicals that are also pharmaceuticals — the antiseptics phenol and hydrogen peroxide — account for 92 percent of the 271 million pounds identified as coming from pharmaceutical companies and other manufacturers. Both can be toxic and both are considered to be ubiquitous in the environment. However, the list of 22 includes other troubling releases of chemicals that can be used to make drugs and other products: 8 million pounds of the skin bleaching cream hydroquinone, 3 million pounds of nicotine compounds that can be used in quit-smoking patches, 10,000 pounds of the antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. Others include treatments for head lice and worms. Pharmaceutical company officials point out that active ingredients represent profits, so there''s a huge incentive not to let any escape. They also say extremely strict manufacturing regulations help prevent leakage, and that whatever traces may get away are handled by onsite wastewater treatment.