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Q. Is BCWS testing for any pharmaceuticals in the water?

BCWS has not tested for pharmaceuticals in the drinking water we serve. However, one of our suppliers, Greater Cincinnati Water Works, has tested. BCWS purchases our water from two suppliers — the city of Hamilton and GCWW.

GCWW has tested their drinking water and found trace amounts of caffeine. In addition, GCWW has also tested their source water and found trace levels of four pharmaceuticals. The following were found in the parts per trillion (ppt) range in the Ohio River source water:

  • Gemfibrozil, which is used to lower lipid levels
  • Ibuprofen, which is an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory)
  • Sulfamethaxazole which is a synthetic antibacterial
  • Ethinyl estradiol which is an estrogen
  • Our other supplier, the city of Hamilton, has not done any source water or finished tap water testing for pharmaceuticals.

Q. How much is in the water?

Water professionals are finding these substances because we now have the technology to detect more substances, at lower levels, than ever before.  As analytical methods improve, professionals are finding pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products at very low levels in many of our nation's source water supplies.

When detected, levels are consistently at "trace amounts" that are substantially below even a single pill. On average, all pharmaceuticals detected in U.S. drinking water are below 10 part per trillion (ppt), except caffeine at 25 ppt. It is important to understand that the levels at which these compounds have been found are extremely low. Some analogies for visualizing one part per trillion are:

  • one second in 32,000 years
  • one grain of sugar or salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool
  • one inch in 33 round-trips to the moon
  • one penny in $10 billion

Q. How do pharmaceuticals get in the water?

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) enter the environment when medications are excreted out of the body (people and animals), externally-applied drugs and personal care products are washed off, and when medications are put in the toilet or improperly placed in the trash for disposal. They enter the water cycle by directly being washed into the streams, rivers or ground water or if they are in the sewers, after passing through the wastewater treatment plant. 

 For a poster illustrating how PPCPs enter the water, please click on this USEPA website link:


Q. What can the public do?

The best and most cost-effective way to ensure safe water at the tap is to keep our source waters clean. Current wastewater treatment plant technology is not designed to remove all amounts of pharmaceutical compounds from the sewage. Our water is a precious resource. Preventing compounds from entering sewers and the environment is a first step.

For proper disposal of outdated or unused medications:

  • Pour liquid medicines into a plastic sealable bag, for pills add a little water to dissolve them in the bag
  • Mix in used coffee grounds or used cat litter to make it unpalatable to pets or people
  • Seal the bag and dispose of it in the trash

For more information visit the SMARxT website.

Q. What are the public health risks?

The fact that a substance is detectable does not mean the substance is harmful to humans. Current research has not demonstrated an impact on human health from pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupting compounds in drinking water.

While these compounds may be detected at very low levels in source waters, people regularly consume or expose themselves to products containing these compounds in much higher concentrations through medicines, food, and beverages. The level in which they are found in source waters is very small in comparison.

Q. Can water treatment plants lessen or eliminate pharmaceuticals from drinking water?

Although public water utilities are not set up to remove specific pharmaceuticals, some treatment processes can lessen or remove them through the regular treatment process. For example, GCWW uses full-scale granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment with on-site reactivation.  This method is cited in studies as being extremely effective in removing substances such as those pharmaceuticals reported in the news articles. GCWW has been a world leader in developing GAC technology and has been carbon filtering in deep bed filters water from the Ohio River since 1992.

Q. Why don't wastewater utilities remove pharmaceuticals?

Wastewater treatment plants are designed to enhance the natural processes of biodegradation that occur in rivers when organic material is discharged to a water system. When the treatment facilities were built, they were designed to handle the environmental health and safety problems that were known then. Currently, there are no municipal sewage treatment plants that are engineered specifically for PPCP removal or for other unregulated contaminants.