Drugs and Personal Care Products Polluting Water (cont.)

Should we be worried about ecological and/or human health?

Studies have shown that pharmaceuticals are present in some of our nation's waterbodies. Further research suggests that there may be some ecological harm when certain drugs are present. To date, no evidence has been found of human health effects from PPCPs in the environment.

Where are PPCPs found in the environment?

PPCPs are found where people or animals are treated with drugs and people use personal care products. PPCPs are found in any water body influenced by raw or treated sewage, including rivers, streams, ground water, coastal marine environments, and many drinking water sources. PPCPs have been identified in most places sampled.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) implemented a national reconnaissance to provide baseline information on the environmental occurrence of PPCPs in water resources. You can find more information about this project from the USGS's What's in Our Wastewaters and Where Does it Go? site.

PPCPs in the environment are frequently found in aquatic environments because PPCPs dissolve easily and don't evaporate at normal temperature and pressures. Practices such as the use of sewage sludge ("biosolids") and reclaimed water for irrigation brings PPCPs into contact with the soil.

How is the disposal of unused pharmaceuticals regulated by the US EPA?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a federal law controlling the management and disposal of solid and hazardous wastes produced by a wide variety of industries and sources. The RCRA program regulates the management and disposal of hazardous pharmaceutical wastes produced by pharmaceutical manufacturers and the health care industry. Under RCRA, a waste is a hazardous waste if it is specifically listed by the EPA or if it exhibits one or more of the following four characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity and toxicity.

How do I properly dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals?

In February 2007, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued the first consumer guidance for the Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs. Proper disposal of drugs is a straightforward way for individuals to prevent pollution.

RCRA does not regulate any household waste, which includes medications/pharmaceutical waste generated in a household. While discarded pharmaceuticals under the control of consumers are not regulated by RCRA, EPA encourages the public:

  • to take advantage of pharmaceutical take-back programs or household hazardous waste collection programs that accept pharmaceuticals

  • If there are no take-back programs near you,
    • contact your state and local waste management authorities (the disposal of household waste is primarily regulated on the state and local levels) with questions about discarding unused pharmaceuticals, whether or not these materials meet the definition of hazardous waste

    • follow any specific disposal instructions that may be printed on the label or accompanying patient information

For more, please read the "Medication Disposal: What to do with old or unusable medication" article.

Who can I contact for more information?

You can contact an EPA regional representative or a program office representative.

Scientific Focus

Where Did the Acronym PPCPs Originate?

The acronym "PPCPs" was coined in the 1999 critical review published in Environmental Health Perspectives  to refer to Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products. PPCPs comprise a very broad, diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances, including prescription, veterninary, and over-the-counter (OTC) therapeutic drugs, fragrances, cosmetics, sun-screen agents, diagnostic agents, nutraceuticals, biopharmaceuticals, growth enhancing chemicals used in livestock operations, and many others. This broad collection of substances refers, in general, to any product used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons. Since its introduction in 1999, the acronym PPCPs has become the most frequently adopted term in both the technical and popular literature and therefore is a useful keyword for performing literature searches.

What was EPA's historical role in this area?

EPA established a leadership role beginning in 1999 with publication of a critical review (PDF) (41pp, 789 KB) article that attempted to bring together the many different aspects of this complex issue.

From the beginning, a major objective has been to stimulate a proactive versus a reactive approach to this environmental issue. The work was driven by goals from the U.S. EPA's Strategic Plan. The relevant goals included:

  • Clean and Safe Water

  • Preventing Pollution and Reducing Risk in Communities, Homes, Workplaces, and Ecosystems

  • Better Waste Management, Restoration of Contaminated Waste Sites, and Emergency Response

  • and Sound Science - Improved Understanding of Environmental Risk and Greater Innovation to Address Environmental Problems