The global pharmaceutical market is worth 300 billion euros. The United States is by far the leading consumer of medicines (51% of total), followed by Europe (25%) and Japan (15%). Residues of these prescription and over-the-counter drugs find their way into waterways all over the world. Although, drug pollution is primarily a problem of rich countries.
Bodies of water are loaded with traces of antibiotics, anticancer drugs, analgesics, antidepressants, anti-inflammatory agents, hormones, or beta-blockers. Waterways and underground water have become a drug cocktail, as molecules are diluted but never disappear. So, they end up in drinking water from out of the tap. What are the risks to human health? Concentrations can reach several hundred micrograms (millionths of a gram) per liter in the effluent and urban waste water, and a few nanograms (billionths of a gram) per liter in surface water, groundwater, and water for consumption.
During a five-month investigation, the Associated Press learned that “tens of millions of Americans drink water that has tested positive for minute concentrations of pharmaceuticals, and they don’t even realize it.” In Philadelphia’s drinking water, for instance, 56 human and veterinary pharmaceuticals or their byproducts were traced. These included the active ingredients in medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness, and heart problems.
Canadian researchers from the University of Montreal have come to identify that the St. Lawrence River contains low concentrations of molecules found in drugs used against cholesterol, hypertension, and cancer. Many studies in the USA, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Finland and France, describe similar situations. The contraceptive pill has been found to have devastating effects on the environment because of hormones in it that are released into the environment via the urine of its users.
According to the National Academy of Pharmacy in a French report in autumn 2008, “The presence of traces of drugs or their derivatives has been widely established on a global scale, particularly in surface water, groundwater, and in the sewage sludge in sewage treatment plants used for agricultural spraying and soil.” All waters are contaminated, including those intended for human consumption.
Hospitals are a significant source, as well. Their effluents contain large quantities of both drugs and molecules of diagnostic and laboratory reagents.