Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in Drinking Water

Lately media attention has been focused on the detection of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in drinking water.  PPCPs refer to a group of compounds that are used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons.  Consumer products, such as fragrance, lotions, sunscreens, house cleaning products, and more fall into this category.  Also included are human and veterinary drugs (prescription or over-the-counter).

PPCPs can be introduced into the environment in several ways, including: 

  • Flushing unused medications down the toilet or sink.
  • Rinsing personal hygiene and household cleaning products down the drain.
  • Excreting unabsorbed medications into the sewage system.
  • Farm animals excreting veterinary drugs, including hormones and antibiotics, into fields where they run off into lakes and streams.
  • Improper commercial disposal methods.

Because we now have the advanced technology to detect more substances - at lower levels - than ever before,  it is important to remember that many compounds listed are being found at extremely low levels, typically single-digit parts per trillion (ppt). Drinking water standards are typically set in the parts per billion range, which is 1000 times higher.

1 Part Per Million (ppm):
  • 1 inch to 16 miles
  • 1 minute to 2 years
  • 1 cent to $10,000
  • 1 ounce to 31 tons
  • 1 bad apple in 2,000 barrels

1 Part Per Billion (ppb):
  • 1 inch to 16,000 miles
  • 1 second to 32 years
  • 1 cent to $10 million
  • 1 pinch of salt to 10 tons of potato chips
  • 1 bad apple in 2 million barrels

1 Part Per Trillion (ppt): 
  • 1 inch to 16 million miles (A six-inch leap on a journey to the sun)
  • 1 second in 320 centuries
  • 1 cent to $10 billion
  • 1 pinch of salt to 10,000 tons of potato chips
  • 1 bad apple in 2 billion barrels

Although these compounds are detected at very low levels in source waters, people expose themselves to these same compounds on a regular basis and in much higher concentrations through medicines, food and beverages and other personal care products.  Their impact on human health at these low levels has not been demonstrated. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains an active program called the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) to identify contaminants in public drinking water that warrant detailed study. While the CCL does not currently include any PPCPs, the EPA will likely consider these compounds in the future.

Water professionals also are researching the effectiveness of current treatment techniques on removal of PPCPs and other organic compounds. Because of the wide array of chemical structures and properties associated with PPCPs, no one single treatment can remove them all. Technologies under investigation include membranes and GAC which physically remove compounds and ozone or UV which break them down.

  • NEVER flush unneeded or expired medications down a toilet or drain, especially if you use a septic system.

  • Find out if any pharmacies in your community will take back unneeded or expired medications, or if a take-back program exists in your community.

  • If no other disposal options exist, alter the medications in some way and place them in the trash. Opinions on altering medications vary – some believe the medications should be simply made unpalatable or undesirable to prevent accidental ingestion, while others believe they should be made totally unusable.

  • If the medications will be landfilled, they should be left in their original containers to reduce seepage, making sure all identifying information has been removed. Add something to the medication to make it unusable (kitty litter to liquid medications, glue to pills, or a small amount of disinfectant to any medication) or unpalatable (a small amount of water to pills or salt, flour or a powdered spice like mustard or turmeric to liquid medications). Package in an obscure container such as an empty margarine tub or non-transparent bag and place it in the trash.

  • Use products sparingly, completely, and according to label recommendations.

  • Unneeded products are best disposed of by landfilling. Leave products in their original containers.

  • When purchasing new products, avoid unnecessary ingredients, such as scents or those labeled antimicrobial.

  • Consider using products with ingredients that are more likely to biodegrade harmlessly in the environment, such as those with ingredients like vinegar, lemon juice, or baking soda.


For more information about Pharmaceuticals  
Please contact the Water Quality division at 480-644-6461.


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