Drugs of all kinds are in the foods you might eat and the water you drink. Most recently, even private well systems were found to have traces of pharmaceutical products in the water.

A 2015 study that assessed rivers near urban areas in the United States for the presence of active pharmaceutical ingredients found 20 percent of the 182 sites sampled had at least 10 of the 46 compounds sampled.

Among the pharmaceuticals sampled, the antibiotic Sulfamethoxazole was most frequently found. The researchers looked for antibiotics, diuretics, antihypertensives, anticonvulsants and antidepressants. Of the 46 looked, 37 were found in at least one sample site.

For the more recent study, researchers collaborating with Penn State Extension’s Pennsylvania Master Well Owner Network, tested 26 private wells along the Susquehanna River looking for seven over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceuticals: acetaminophen, ampicillin, caffeine, naproxen, ofloxacin, sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim. Ofloxacin and sulfamethoxazole were found the most often. Caffeine was found in approximately half of the samples, while naproxen was not found in any samples.

Heather Gall, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, leading a group in the Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences commented, "It is now widely known that over-the-counter and prescription medications are routinely present at detectable levels in surface and groundwater bodies. The presence of these emerging contaminants has raised both environmental and public health concerns, particularly when these water supplies are used as drinking water sources."

The widespread use of opioids has also impacted the water supply, and this has impacted the food we consume. Mussels harvested from the Puget Sound in Washington state have tested positive for trace amounts of oxycodone.

"Oxycodone is in the news right now but there are a number of other pharmaceutical products that we found," biologist Jennifer Lanksbury, who led the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife study, reported, "Antibiotics, the anti-depressants, chemotherapy drugs, heart medications that we're finding in mussels."

Sadly, Lanksbury also reports that the same pharmaceuticals are being found in juvenile chinook salmon. The researchers determined that the pharmaceuticals are flowing into the Puget Sound from wastewater treatment plants.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the pharmaceutical contamination of drinking water as a worldwide concern. More conventional water treatment processes, such as chlorination, remove up to 50 percent of the pharmaceuticals. Advanced processes have a much higher removal rate and are effective for 99 percent of large pharmaceutical molecules.

WHO, however, states that the most appropriate approach is to minimize the use, and educate the public about disposal, and thus presence, of pharmaceuticals. Public health education about rational drug use, the appropriate disposal of pharmaceuticals and systemic drug take-back programs reduce the risk of the drugs impacting the environment.

Drug take-back programs are effective at keeping pharmaceuticals out of the environment. The most recent National Take Back Day was in April 2018 and 4,683 law enforcement programs participated collecting close to 475 tons of pharmaceutical products. The next take back day is set for Oct. 27.

This program is not only providing a safe means to dispose of pharmaceuticals and keep them from contaminating our waterways but is providing a means to educate the public about responsible use of pharmaceuticals.