HomeWho We AreServicesPortfolioMedia CenterCareer Opportunities


Prescription Drugs in Your Food and Drinking Water

Thomas Kunnen, 2011 PharmD Candidate
Consumer Health Information Corporation.
The University of Charleston School of Pharmacy


Dorothy L. Smith, Pharm.D.

CEO and President

Consumer Health Information Corporation

McLean, Virginia


Has the cost of your medicines been draining your wallet lately? If the answer is yes, studies show that you may be able to get a small dose free in your next glass of tap water. And if you’re not a big water drinker you may not be off the hook. No matter where you live, tiny amounts of medicine are probably available in menu items just down the road.

It’s true. New studies have reported a number of medicines in water supplies and animal food sources across the nation. Concern about the health effects of these medicines in the long-term has been a topic of recent debate.


Recent Findings and Debate

Some of the latest health summits have looked at which environmental medicines are a risk to consumers. These groups recognize that the concentration of medicines found in food and water supplies is very small. Still, there is worry over even trace amounts of medicine in the American diet. At the moment, we do not know if these medicines can harm the body over several years of exposure.

Examples of medicines that have been found in national water sources:

• Antibiotics
• Antidepressants
• Anticonvulsants
• Prescription hormones
• Blood pressure medications
• Cholesterol medications

Safety issues that may be linked to medicines in national water sources:

• Possible increased rates of cancer
• Possible organ damage from long periods of exposure to medicine
• Possible organ damage from the intake of unusual mixtures of medicines
• The development of antibiotic resistant bacteria


How Did This Happen?

Drugs in the Water Supply

Americans spend billions of dollars on prescription drugs every year. After being taken these medicines are eventually removed by the body and flushed into the water supply. Many people also flush unused medicines down their toilets as a means of disposal.

Water treatment plants help remove chemicals, so why are medicines being missed? The tricky thing about medicines is they are designed to avoid being broken down. Drugs that are easy to destroy would quickly be made ineffective in the body. This property makes them hard to eliminate when they hit the treatment plants as well.

Fortunately, medicines in the environment are found very small amounts. Studies show that medicines in drinking water are found in parts-per-billion or parts-per-trillion quantities. Many of these studies claim such small levels do not affect human health. Other studies claim that any amount of medicine can be harmful. These studies argue that traces of medicine can have long-term effects at concentrations as low as a few parts-per-trillion.

Drugs in Animals

Medicines are also being found in animal food sources. Medicines are given to animals to treat sickness or to help the animals grow. These medicines stay in the animal meat when you purchase food for your family. Studies have also found antibiotic drugs like penicillin in cow’s milk. It has been reasoned that increased allergies to dairy products may be related to such drugs.

Finally, decreased effectiveness of some medicines due to their overuse in animals may create future challenges in healthcare. There is worry that antibiotic use in animals may be creating stronger strains of bacteria.

Pharmaceutical Companies

Drug companies doubt there is any harm from medicines that get into food or water. They note the very small concentration of drugs found in such supplies. As a result, some companies have published studies concluding that trace amounts of medicine are safe.


What You Can Do To Minimize Your Risk.

  • Drinking bottled or filtered water may help reduce your exposure to medicines in  the water supply. Keep in mind that most companies that bottle water do not treat for medications. This means it is possible that bottled water could still contain small amounts of medicine.
  • Avoid flushing drugs down the toilet when possible. It is recommended that medications disposed of at home be mixed with an unpalatable substance. Coffee grounds or kitty litter are good examples. Even though this practice simply moves drugs to landfills, government agencies prefer this option to polluting our water.
  • Visit your local pharmacy for information on drug take-back programs. Such programs will properly dispose of your unused medicines for you.
  • Make sure you take your medicines as directed by your doctor. This will reduce the amount of unused medicines found in landfills. Medicines taken by the public also have the advantage of being partially broken down by the body when compared to unused medicines.
  • Buy foods that will reduce your exposure. Health and organic grocery stores sell products from animals that are not given growth hormones or antibiotics.


Should You Be Alarmed?

The jury is still out on the health impact of medicines in the environment. Most of the data today suggest that the current dose of medication in your food and water is too small to cause any immediate health risks. Some experts, however, question if this claim is true for all populations. Those with allergies to medications, for example, may be more susceptible to small doses. Environmental groups have also expressed concern for vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.

Despite these concerns, the current stance of the government is that the food and water products available to Americans today are safe. If this position will change in the near future is yet to be seen. In the meantime, it is important that you understand your risk. Remember that the concern is long-term effects caused by exposure over many years. The effects of this long-term exposure are yet to be determined. Accordingly, new studies about long-term health risks are needed.


© 2010 Consumer Health Information Corporation. All rights reserved.