Four Things You Should Know About Your Water (And What's In It)

Four Things You Should Know About Your Water (And What's In It)

02.15.13 | By Kaelan Hollon

Aside from the acai-blueberry-broccoli-pomegranate-pineapple-kiwi-strawberry flavoring you put in your glass of water every day, are you curious about what else is in it? Lots of folks are, and there's been quite a bit of online "discussion" about a new study on the effects of pharmaceutical products in the water supply. Problem is, when you really look at the evidence behind why pharmaceuticals end up in drinking water, you'll find that much of this attention is misguided and erroneous.

1. Your Pee and Poop Are The Biggest Sources of Pharmaceuticals Found in Wastewater Discharge (No, Really!)

Though a little awkward to discuss, this fact bears mention. Concerns about environmental impact from the discharge of pharmaceuticals in the environment often neglect to mention that the traces of pharmaceuticals found in the environment aren't due to manufacturing, but because everybody uses the bathroom. That's right: the way our body metabolizes medicine, and anything else that we ingest, is to effectively dump some of it out (no pun intended). It's a natural part of how our bodies use the medicine, and it's the primary source of how pharmaceuticals end up in our water supply.

Keep in mind we're not talking about a large quantity, here: quite the opposite. Of that very small and nearly undetectable amount of pharmaceutical residue found in water (about one sugar cube in about 2.5 million gallons of water, or four Olympic swimming pools' worth), there's been no published investigation that has found that exposure to these residues pose a risk to human health. By comparison, worldwide nearly 1.5 million children die EACH YEAR due to diarrhea, most of that related to fecal matter in their largely untreated water supply. Our current wastewater structure not only keeps us safe, it saves lives.

The fact remains, you're probably peeing out a tiny bit of medicine when your body uses it, and that's okay. Of all the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, solvents, chemicals and other byproducts found in water (the list is long, check it out), pharmaceutical products are very low on the list, already tightly regulated and those trace amounts found have been found not to affect people's health.

2. US Wastewater Treatment Facilities Are Good At Their Job

Wastewater treatment facilities have a rather daunting job that I don't envy - they run a round-the-clock operation responsible for removing just a few milligrams per liter of each of several pollutants from the water supply. Consider that the average American produces 100 gallons of wastewater each day (according to the EPA) -that's nearly 1600 glasses of water or almost two full bathtubs. Roughly 99.94% of that wastewater is water by weight; only a small 0.06% is actually waste material, which includes human waste, of course, but also many other water pollutants like food particles, paper products, dirt, oil and grease, proteins, organic materials such as sugars and naturally occurring hormones, inorganic materials such as salts, personal care products, cleaning chemicals, and hundreds of other chemicals.

In spite of that massive task and little margin for error, the EPA and American Water Works Association are both pretty clear that current wastewater treatment practices are working - even the World Health Organization agrees. The WHO looked at various countries' methods of wastewater treatment, and noted that there are bigger fish to fry than traces of pharmaceuticals in drinking water. From their study:

Trace quantities of pharmaceuticals in drinking-water are very unlikely to pose risks to human health because of the substantial margin of exposure or margin of safety between the concentrations detected and the concentrations likely to evoke a pharmacological effect. Concerns over pharmaceuticals should not divert the attention and valuable resources of water suppliers and regulators from the various bacterial, viral and protozoan waterborne pathogens and other chemical priorities, such as lead and arsenic.

3. Our Medicines Are Tested On The Environment Prior To Approval

Our medicines are among the safest in the world, and a big part of that is thanks to pharmaceutical manufacturers' meticulous compliance with good manufacturing practices (GMP) regulations. Part of the incredibly expensive investment involved in developing and manufacturing a new medicine is related to compliance with the extensive Federal, State and Local regulations. And environmental impact assessments are part of how manufacturers safely bring a drug to market. Here's just a partial list of environmental tests and regulations manufacturers work with:

  • FDA regulations under National Environmental Policy Act
  • Environmental assessments part of a New Drug Application to the FDA
  • Federal Clean Water Act requirements and pharmaceutical effluent guidelines
  • State guidelines on waste management
  • Local water board regulations
  • Municipal regulations that control pre-treatment and testing practices on wastewater streams

In addition to these regulations, our companies are constantly looking for new ways to get better at sustainability - ten years ago, they even voluntarily created an analysis model (called 'PhATE') for estimating concentrations of pharmaceutical ingredients in the surface water. All of this regulation is just part of the process of manufacturing and approving a new medicine, and our members' strict compliance with them evinces their commitment to patient safety and sustainability practices.

4. We Work Hard at Protecting The Environment - And It Shows

In addition to the comprehensive environmental impact assessments performed prior to manufacturing a new medicine, our companies do plenty more to help the environment, and it shows.

As part of their overall environmental strategy, several members have opted to include renewable sources in their energy portfolio, operate alternative vehicles to reduce fleet emissions, create extensive environmental sustainability goals and incorporate green building design into renovation or new construction.

Many of our companies are heavily invested in integrating 'green chemistry' principles into development and manufacturing their medicines to reduce or eliminate environmental impact. One PhRMA member was able to reduce the use of chloroform, a regulated hazardous substance, by 98% across its R&D operations in just one year and eliminated 15,000 metric tons of CO2 per year by manufacturing a single medicine using alternative enzymatic chemistry - wow. Even the EPA is proud of our members' work - check out their list of Presidential Green Chemistry Awards (yes, we're bragging!).

Our companies work hard at making safe, effective products that save lives, and they're good environmental stewards while doing it. Biopharmaceutical employees live and work in the cities where many of our manufacturing plants are located, and we have always taken great pride in our careful adherence to environmental regulations about manufacturing waste. But hyperbole and hysterics confuse the issue about whether your water is safe (it is), and whether your local streams have unsafe levels of pharmaceutical manufacturing effluents (they do not). Extensive science backs up both assertions. The fact is, your water - and your medicine - are carefully regulated to ensure they're as safe as possible. So why not just stick to the facts?

More On PhRMA — powered by PhRMApedia