In March 2008, the Associated Press (AP) reported that pharmaceutical residues were detected in the drinking water of 24 major metropolitan areas across the country serving 41 million people. This information was derived from tests that water utilities had undertaken voluntarily and provided to the press. Detected drugs included antibiotics, anti-convulsants, and mood stabilizer drugs. These results supported previous findings of the U.S. Geological Survey that sampled 139 streams in 30 states in 1999-2000 and found organic wastewater contaminants and pharmaceuticals in 80 percent of sampled sites – including antibiotics, hypertensive and cholesterol-lowering drugs, antidepressants, analgesics, steroids, caffeine, and reproductive hormones. In fact, as analytical technology has allowed for the detection of even lower concentrations of pharmaceuticals in aquatic systems, it has become clear that these contaminants are ubiquitous.
The unintended movement of biologically active, toxic, and hormone-disrupting compounds from pharmaceuticals to wastewater effluents and drinking water sources is an international problem that has been documented and publicly reported by government experts and academic researchers for nearly two decades.
This report, which was motivated by the release of the AP findings, seeks to identify what is known about the sources of pharmaceutical contamination of water, and the magnitude of the risks that that contamination poses, as well as to document on-going efforts to address the problem and make recommendations for further research and advocacy.