Man filling glass of water

Prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, personal care products, flame retardants, detergents and new types of herbicides and pesticides. What do these items have in common? They’re all emerging contaminants that have been detected at trace levels in drinking water. 

These contaminants have been around for as long as we’ve been using them, but we’ve only recently had the technology to detect them at trace levels. Most contaminants found in drinking water fall into two categories:

  • They cause adverse health effects
  • They’re not harmful, but look, taste or smell bad

Emerging  contaminants fall into a category of their own because they have only been found at trace levels. Supposedly, they don’t pose a public health risk, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the risk of trace levels to humans and the environment isn’t really well understood. Scientists are working on it, particularly with pharmaceuticals, personal care products and perfluorinated compounds. Perfluorinated compounds are man-made compounds used in stain, oil, and water-resistant consumer products. They’re also in firefighting foams, cleaners, cosmetics, paints, adhesives and insecticides.

If you’re concerned about emerging contaminants in the water you drink, you’re not alone. NSF International recently surveyed 1000 people across the country and found that most of them were worried about emerging contaminants in their drinking water. NSF is an organization that develops public health standards and certification programs designed to protect food, water, consumer products and the environment around the world.

NSF survey results

  • 82 percent were concerned about trace levels of emerging contaminants in drinking water

Of the 82 percent,

  • 87 percent were concerned about pesticides and herbicides
  • 34 percent were concerned about prescription drugs
  • 24 percent were concerned about detergents

The survey also found that while people may be worried about possible contaminants in their drinking water, most of them continue to do things that only add to the problem. For instance here’s what participants said about disposing of unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs:

  • 34 percent throw them in the garbage
  • 19 percent flush them down the toilet
  • Only 28 percent correctly bring them to a pharmacist or clinic for disposal

This infographic from NSF is a quick and easy way to look at the survey results.

Water Supply Contaminants Infographic

Don’t flush your medicine down the toilet!

A 2013 Mayo Clinic study showed that prescription drug use has increased steadily in the United States for the past decade. Today, nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug and more than half take two. The most common are antibiotics, antidepressants and painkillers.

There are several ways pharmaceuticals can get into the environment, but the most common are from household septic systems or wastewater treatment plants. They can also be released when they’re being manufactured, handled, stored or used — even when used by individuals like you or me. Our bodies don’t completely absorb the medications that we take, so any excess is excreted when we go to the bathroom and end up in waste water. We make things worse if we then flush leftover medications down the toilet.

Also, when we bathe, wash our hair, clothes or dishes, the soaps and detergents we use enter the water supply, as do any pesticides and herbicides that we may use on our lawns and in our gardens. So, what are some things each of us can do to help lower the level of contaminants?

More things we can do to protect drinking water

  • Never throw unused prescription or over the counter medicines in the garbage or flush them down the toilet.
  • Do not dump toxic chemicals down the drain or on the ground.
  • Take toxic chemicals like weed killers, pesticides, thinners, strippers, wood preservatives and cleaning chemicals to a hazardous waste collection center.
  • Don’t use or minimize the use of herbicides and pesticides.
  • Do not burn household waste containing pharmaceuticals.
  • Find out if you have underground storage tanks (USTs) or above-ground storage tanks (ASTs) on your property.
  • Recycle or properly dispose of used motor oil, grease and parts cleaners, and antifreeze.
  • Check for leaking fluids from vehicles.
  • Buy more environmentally safe cleaning liquids for use at home and other public places.
  • Filter your water at the tap.

If you decide to install a water filter, your head may spin at the choices. NSF recently developed an American national standard that verifies the ability of a water treatment device to reduce up to 15 emerging contaminants. If you want to learn more about choosing a water treatment system or how to get information about your water quality and how to protect it, visit the NSF website.

Know of a hazardous waste collection center or medication take back program?

If you know of hazardous waste collection centers or medication take back programs in the area, please let me know and I’ll list them all in a separate blog post. Thank you!

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