Wastewater Treatment and Medicines

Wastewater treatment systems are very effective at removing solids and harmful bacteria but they were not designed to remove pharmaceuticals. Some medicines pass through treatment and are discharged to streams, lakes, rivers and bays. Some settle out into the solids, also known as biosolids.

A 2008 study by the Washington Department of Ecology and the EPA measured pharmaceuticals in five municipal wastewater treatment plants that discharge to Washington State waters. The study found pharmaceuticals in treated wastewater and biosolids from all five plants. About half of the biosolids in Washington are applied to agricultural land or forests. Medicines could enter our environment through this application, as well as through treated wastewater discharged to our waters.   Read more…

Wastewater treatment professionals are exploring new technologies that could remove more pharmaceuticals. These technologies are not yet commonly used and it would cost billions of dollars to upgrade wastewater treatment systems in Washington State to remove most medicines.

Using take-back medicine programs is the most sensible way to reduce the amount of medicines entering the environment right now.

What You Can Do Now

1 Washington State Department of Ecology (2010). Focus on Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products. http://www.ecy.wa.gov/pubs/1003003.pdf.  Accessed 09/02/10.