Contaminants of Emerging Concern
Pharmaceutical Screening Project

Pharmaceuticals and Drinking Water

Pharmaceuticals are medicines that are available in stores or by prescription and are used to treat illness in humans and animals. The presence of pharmaceuticals in water has become an increasing concern to MDH because they may cause harm to humans.

Pharmaceuticals enter rivers, lakes, and groundwater when human waste, animal waste, or discarded medications move from storm water systems, sewer systems, or septic tanks into water.

Once in groundwater, pharmaceuticals do not break down rapidly. Pharmaceuticals in lakes and rivers may break down, but some have been shown to negatively affect the health of fish. Wastewater and drinking water treatment may not completely remove pharmaceuticals. As a result, these chemicals can be found in drinking water sources for Minnesotans. 

Due to the increasing pressures on water resources and the increasing use of pharmaceuticals, it is important to addresses the presence of pharmaceuticals in water and the possible health concerns for Minnesotans.

The Pharmaceutical Screening Project at MDH

A detailed risk assessment using standard MDH methods can take many months for each individual chemical, so it is not a practical way to rapidly evaluate the hundreds of pharmaceuticals of concern. MDH is using a rapid assessment of the risks from pharmaceuticals in water. This new approach allows MDH to evaluate hundreds of pharmaceuticals that have been found in water.

To better understand possible health concerns, MDH is learning what use and characteristics of a pharmaceutical cause it to be present in water.  This work also looks at many factors for each pharmaceutical, including the lowest effective treatment dose, the ability of the chemical to cause cancer, endocrine activity, and safety factors for vulnerable populations.  MDH will also consider environmental impacts including the ability of the pharmaceutical to stay in the environment unchanged (persistence), and the potential of the pharmaceutical to build up in body tissue over time (bioaccumulation). MDH will then determine which pharmaceuticals have the greatest potential for harm when they are present in drinking water.

Project Outcomes

As a result of this project, MDH will:

  1. Create new water quality values to protect human health
  2. Understand the risks that pharmaceuticals currently being found in water pose to someone drinking the water
  3. Prioritize and select pharmaceuticals for further study and a more complete risk assessment
  4. Make recommendations for pharmaceuticals to include in future water quality monitoring programs.

The pharmaceutical project is designed with flexibility so it can be adapted for other groups of contaminants within the Contaminants of Emerging Concern Program.

Updated Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 07:51AM