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Water: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products

Strategy for Addressing PPCPs in Water

EPA is responding to concerns about pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in water with a four-pronged approach aimed at:

The Agency has a number of activities underway in each of these areas and will continue to add activities as appropriate.


Strengthening Science

Sound science and reliable information must be the foundation for any agency decision. EPA has several activities underway to strengthen the science for understanding the behavior of PPCPs in water including, research, methods development, and occurrence studies.

  1. Methods Development

    It is important to have analytical methods available to reliably detect PPCPs in water, wastewater, and biosolids. To fill some current gaps, EPA developed and released methods for the analysis of approximately 100 pharmaceuticals, personal care products, steroids, and hormones in wastewater and biosolids. See methods 1694 and 1698.

  2. Occurrence Studies

    The Agency is conducting or funding a number of studies to better understand the potential sources and occurrence of pharmaceuticals in wastewater effluent, biosolids and fish tissue, including:

    • Publicly-Owned Treatment Works (POTW) Study to better understand what is going into the POTW for treatment and what is coming out both in the discharge and in the biosolids. (2009)
    • Fish Tissue Pilot Study to investigate whether pharmaceuticals and other personal care products may occur in fish from five effluent-dominated streams across the US. (2008)
    • Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey to determine whether approximately 100 pharmaceuticals and other personal care products may occur in biosolids. (2008)
    • University of Florida project (funded by EPA) to evaluate the fate and transport of triclocarban in biosolids. (2009)
    • Duke University project (funded by EPA) that is monitoring for steroids and hormones in wastewater and biosolids at four wastewater treatment plants. (2009)
  3. Research

    EPA's Office of Research and Development is engaged in a broad research portfolio to answer key questions associated with exposure pathways, health, and aquatic life effects of pharmaceuticals in water. An inventory of the projects developed for the period from 1996 through 2014 is available. The Agency also supports and cooperates with research efforts carried out by outside groups, such as the American Water Works Association Research Foundation (AwwaRF) and Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF).

    EPA has research underway to help understand whether very low levels of pharmaceuticals in water might present a risk to human health. EPA is commissioning the National Academy of Sciences to provide expert scientific advice on how to determine potential risks to human health.

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Improving Public Understanding

It is important to communicate with the public about available data and any associated uncertainty with the data. To help in this regard, EPA has developed a website focusing specifically on PPCPs in water, and a website with a primary focus on the Agency's research.

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Building Partnerships and Promoting Stewardship Opportunities

Federal, state and local agencies, industry and others all have a role to play in better understanding and addressing issues regarding pharmaceuticals in water. Collaboration and building partnerships for stewardship are important components:

  • EPA is participating, along with 10 other federal agencies, on the Pharmaceuticals in the Environment workgroup under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources Toxics and Risk Subcommittee to better coordinate federal research efforts.
  • In conjunction with the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), EPA issued drug disposal guidelines in early 2007 to help reduce the quantities of pharmaceuticals entering our nation's waterways.
  • EPA has also been supporting and promoting good stewardship efforts:
    • Grant to Area Resources for Community and Human Services (ARCHS) in St. Louis ($150K) for take-back of non-controlled, unused medicines at pharmacies
    • Grant to University of Maine ($150K) for mail-back of unused medicines with appropriate involvement of law enforcement
    • Grant to Villanova University in Delaware County, Pennsylvania ($101K) to identify ways to better manage how pharmaceuticals are discarded from university dormitories.
    • Great Lakes Earth Day Challenge to collect at least one million pills for safe disposal.
  • EPA is participating in the World Health Organization (WHO) Task Force on PPCPs in drinking water. The task force consists of scientists from Singapore, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, Tanzania, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Netherlands, and the United States. They plan to address:
    • environmental occurrence and sources of PPCPs in finished drinking water and source water;
    • approaches to assess health risks to vulnerable populations;
    • environmental chemistry of PPCPs in natural waters;
    • advances in treatment methods and analytical methods, including treatment effectiveness;
    • availability of data and information to assess risks to human health; and
    • existing pharmaceutical take-back and safe disposal programs to reduce water pollution.

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Taking Regulatory Action when Appropriate

EPA will use existing regulatory tools when appropriate to minimize the amount of pharmaceuticals entering the waste stream. For example:

  • Health Care Industry Study—as part of the effluent guidelines planning process, EPA is conducting a study on the pharmaceutical disposal practices of hospitals, long-term care facilities, hospices, and veterinary hospitals to identify best practices to minimize pharmaceutical discharges to water.
  • Third Contaminant Candidate List (CCL3)—the Agency proposed 104 contaminants it will evaluate to determine if national drinking water regulations are needed to protect public health. The public comment process concluded on May 21, 2008. The Agency is evaluating the comments received to inform its decision on which chemicals to include on the final list.

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