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Trace Pharmaceuticals

Trace pharmaceuticals, also called microconstituents or emerging contaminants, are products that enter the water supply through animal-based agricultural runoff or human sources. A high percentage of pharmaceuticals in wastewater enter the water supply when people dispose of medicines in the sink or toilet. Most, if not all, pharmaceutical products — whether used in animals or in humans — are used in doses at which some amounts are passed through the user and back into water systems.

The water industry has known about these compounds since 2003, when new instrumentation with lower detection levels started to detect them. Today's technology can detect more substances at lower levels than ever before. As analytical methods improve, pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products are being found at very low levels in many of our nation’s lakes, rivers and streams.


Has Denver Water found these compounds?

Denver Water participated in some of the earliest research projects looking for microconstituents in 2005 (a project with Colorado State University). Researchers did not find any estrogenic compounds but did detect trace amounts of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals at part per trillion concentrations (one part per trillion is equivalent to a half-teaspoon of salt in 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or one second in 31,700 years).

Finding those trace amounts was surprising news and shows that even high-quality watersheds are experiencing the impacts of consumer products.

Are these substances a health risk?

Even the world’s best scientists don’t yet know what the low-level presence of these substances in water mean to human health. Testing technology is so new, most commercial labs are not equipped to analyze for these compounds. Consequently, EPA has no current or proposed regulations for these substances. If future research indicates that certain substances should be removed from water and identifies the best way to do so, we will actively investigate how to do that.

How do I dispose of medications?

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment oversees the Colorado Medication Take-Back Program for disposing unwanted medication in a secure and environmentally safe way. In addition, some local law enforcement agencies and pharmacies accept unwanted medications. Disposing of medication at safe sites, rather than flushing them down a toilet or throwing them away, will help keep pharmaceuticals out of our drinking water.