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Are there drugs in your drinking water?  

National studies show traces of medicines in streams and drinking water supplies. Is this a problem in CT? More....

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Throwing unused medications and over-the-counter products down the toilet or sink pollutes water.  It can also create problems for septic systems and aquatic wildlife like fish.  Finally, there is the disturbing potential for drug residues to end up in the water people drink (see last week’s article at www.ourbetternature.org/drugswater.htm.) 

Drugs dumped down the toilet can end up n drinking water. Photo by Bet Zimmerman.
Drugs dumped down the toilet can end up in your tap water.  Photo by Bet Zimmerman.  (No actual water was polluted during this simulation.)

Environmental scientists and law enforcement have even testing raw sewage, like a giant urinalysis, to evaluate illegal drug use trends in communities.  For example, they found high levels of methamphetamine in Las Vegas, and lots of cocaine in Los Angeles sewage, according to a June 24, 2008 report in the L.A. Times.  Fortunately nobody drinks raw sewage.  Even if they did, they would have to swallow about 264 gallons to get at typical dose of cocaine, according to Jennifer Field, an environmental chemist at Oregon State University.

In Connecticut, the risk of drugs contaminating drinking water is significantly lower than in some other parts of the U.S.  That is because CT prohibits discharge of sewage into tributaries (feeders) of water supply impoundments (Class A and AA drinking water supply watersheds.) “Because of this prohibition, wastewater treatment discharges, which are apt to contain low levels of pharmaceuticals, do not mix with Connecticut’s highly protected public drinking water sources,” says Darrell Smith, Public Health Services Manager for the CT Dept. of Public Health. 

In some major cities like Philadelphia and New Orleans, drinking water comes from rivers.  In CT, about 23% of people get their drinking water from a private well.  The rest (77%) get their drinking water from a public water system.  Of those on a public system, about 85% get their water from surface water reservoirs; the rest (15%) get their water from groundwater wells. There are two exceptions:  Greenwich draws water from the Mianus River, and Putnam draws water from the Little River. The Little River basin basically starts with Roseland Lake, which is fed by Muddy Brook, and flows into the Shepherds Pond impoundment along the Little River and out onto a man-made dam just east of Peake Brook Road (where the treatment plant is located.)  Both the Putnam and Greenwich sources are protected, and neither is influenced by upstream wastewater treatment discharges.

While the concern about drug residues in water is not new, reliable technology to test for and remediate residues at sewage treatment plants or in drinking water is still not generally available.  However, many CT facilities do use advanced treatment that reduces toxicity and removes nutrients.  This treatment reduces the impact of pollutants, including drug residues. Also, wastewater treatment plant sewage sludge is not applied to land in CT, further decreasing the likelihood that medicines could contaminate surface water like rivers.

While it may not be possible to fully eliminate pharmaceutical residues from the waste stream, individuals should be aware of the potential risk, and do what they can do to reduce their own exposure.  This is especially important if your water comes from a well and your drains discharge to a septic system.  Never dispose of drugs down the drain.  To dispose of medications safely in the trash: 

  1. Keep the medication in the original container but cross off the patient’s name or remove the label.  (Note: Chemotherapy drugs may require special handling).
  2. Modify the medications to discourage consumption.  For solids (like pills), add a little water to partially dissolve them.  For liquids, add turmeric, mustard or salt to make it taste nasty. 
  3. Seal it and conceal it inside a non-transparent bag or container so it can not be seen.  Wrap blister packs in duct tape.  DO NOT hide medicines in food waste.  If animals get into the trash, they could inadvertently eat the medicine too.
  4. Discard the container in the trash can (NOT the recycling bin.)

Public Water Supply Facts

  • Public/Private water supply facts
    CT’s population = 3.5 million
    Population served by public water systems regulated by the Dept. of Public Health
    Surface water reservoirs = 2.3 million (85%)
    Groundwater wells = 0.4 million (15%)
  • Total population served by a regulated public water system = 2.7 million (77%)
  • CT Population not served by a public water system = 3.5 – 2.7 = 0.8 million (23%) these residents get their drinking water from private on-site wells


Originally published in the Villager newspapers on July 27, 2008

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