Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products

Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs)—especially endocrine disruptors—are a growing concern for clean water and drinking water programs.


While the drinking water and wastewater industry are not the causes of this problem, they has become responsible for the solution.

Wastewater and drinking water treatment processes have not been designed to address pharmaceuticals, but officials are working to increase PPCP removal rates.

Communication strategies and public outreach programs are needed to better inform the public about the implications of what the scientific community is finding about PPCP effects, what state and federal officials are doing about the issues, and how citizens can help. Researchers and scientists studying the issue need better ways to share the data effectively with those that will benefit from it.

NEIWPCC understands that tracking and monitoring these issues is of high priority and will continue to keep our members apprised of all activities in this area as well as coordinate regional PPCP-related initiatives. NEIWPCC has hosted multiple conferences on PPCPs, for more information please view our PPCP Conference archive.

Background Information

PCPPs have been around for decades, however their presence in the environment and implications thereof is only now a focus of our attention and research. These compounds are comprised of a diverse group of chemicals including, but not limited to:

  • prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • veterinary drugs
  • nutritional supplements
  • fragrances
  • cosmetics
  • sun-screen agents

The paths these compounds travel that ultimately deliver them to the waters of our environment can be generalized into three segments:

Disposal/Release into Wastewater Influent

  • Metabolic excretion (unmetabolized parent drug, parent-drug conjugates, and bioactive metabolites) by humans and pets
  • Release to sewage systems, including both treatment plants and septic systems
  • Disposal of unused/expired medication to sewage systems
  • Release of treated/untreated hospital wastes to domestic sewage systems (weighted toward acutely toxic drugs and diagnostic agents, as opposed to long-term medications)
  • Disposal by pharmacies, physicians, humanitarian drug surplus
  • Discharge of regulated/controlled industrial manufacturing waste streams
  • Disposal/release from clandestine drug labs and illicit drug usage

Wastewater Effluent

  • Treated effluent from domestic sewage treatment plants
  • Release from private septic/leach fields
  • Discharged to surface waters
  • Injected into aquifers (recharge)
  • Recycled/reused (irrigation or domestic uses)
  • Transfer of sewage solids (“biosolids”) to land (e.g., soil amendment/fertilization)
  • Manure from medicated domestic animals (e.g., feed) – CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)

Direct Release to Environment

  • Direct release to open waters via washing/bathing/swimming
  • Release to open waters from aquaculture (medicated feed and resulting excreta)
  • Underground leakage from sewage system infrastructure
  • Overflow of untreated sewage from storm events and system failures directly to surface waters
  • “Straight-piping” from homes (untreated sewage discharged directly to surface waters)

It is important to note that contributions to the environment from some of these sources remain poorly characterized in both quantity and quality and there are other sources that have yet to be identified.

What can the public do about PPCPs?

Do not Flush!

Many states and local governments as well as water organizations are increasingly advising citizens to stop flushing pharmaceuticals and promoting the use of takeback programs and trash as the proper disposal methods of unused or unwanted medicines. A takeback event is a service, generally provided by a local organization, association, or municipality, in which unused pharmaceuticals are collected and disposed of properly (generally by incineration).

Takeback program and event organizers must adhere to various federal and state laws and regulations regarding drug collection and transportation. Alternatives to takeback events are mail-in programs by which patients can send their unused pharmaceuticals by mail to be properly disposed.

If a takeback even is not available, it is recommended to dispose of unused or unwanted pharmaceuticals in the trash. Guidelines advise patients to remove prescription drugs from their original containers and, in a non-descript container, mix them with some undesirable substance such as used coffee grounds, kitty litter, dirt, or sawdust to further discourage their use and throw the mixture away in the trash.