Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

Can Existing Water Purification Processes Take On This Emerging Class of Drinking Water Contaminants?

Alarmed at the discovery of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, global organizations and government agencies like the WHO (World Health Organization), EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency, USGS (US Geological Survey), and the NGWA (National Ground Water Association) have started conducting researches to gain a better understanding of this issue.

One of the most pressing concerns is the possible detrimental impact of pharmaceuticals on drinking water and whether or not our existing purification systems are capable of dealing with this new class of contaminants.

Pharmaceuticals in your drinking water, and it’s not your medication

Pharmaceuticals come from prescription medicines, over-the-counter therapeutic drugs, and veterinary drugs. Hospitals, clinics, veterinary facilities and other health care establishments normally dispose unused or expired pharmaceuticals by flushing them down the toilet or drain.

That’s why traces of these chemical compounds have been detected in various areas of the water cycle, from surface waters, through wastewater, groundwater, and even drinking water.

How harmful are they?

Although some initial studies indicate that the amount of pharmaceuticals which find their way into drinking water is highly unlikely to pose a significant risk to human health, very little is known regarding the risks caused by long-term, low level exposures to these pharmaceuticals. The same is true about the potential combined effects when these different pharmaceuticals get mixed, as in the case of those that find their way to our drinking water.

Obviously, there is much to learn regarding this nascent issue, which is why more studies are being conducted even as we speak.

Do we have water purification processes to counter them?

There is however an important bit of information that we know of. And that is, a large majority of these pharmaceuticals can be filtered by certain types of water purification processes.

Approximately 50% of these chemical compounds can be removed using common water purification processes like coagulation, filtration and chlorination. More advanced processes like ozonation, advanced oxidation, activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and nanofiltration can remove even more. Reverse osmosis, in particular, can already filter out no less than 99% of these drinking water contaminants.

Thus, even while scientists have yet to gain a deeper understanding of these possible threats, the means by which these threats can be mitigated are already at our disposal.

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