Are There Drugs In Your Drinking Water?

woman drinking glass of what appear to be pink and green capsulesWhen I read about an EPA study released earlier this year that found trace residues of at least 25 different drugs in drinking water, I panicked. This was on the heels of a study that linked acetaminophen in pregnancy with ADHD in children. If occasional use of endocrine-disrupting drugs like acetaminophen could affect a baby, what could they do to the rest of us if we were ingesting drugs on a daily basis through drinking water?

Are there drugs in my drinking water? Yes, as well as contaminants linked to cancer. After a moment of panic, I took these steps—and you should, too.

After calming down a bit, I decided to take some steps to assess the situation. First was figuring out what exactly was in my drinking water. So I hopped on over to the Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water Database to find out. This is a great and easy-to-use tool, but because it was last updated in 2009, the information may be out of date. (For more updated info, I could also have contacted my local utility for a water-quality report or called the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.)

The database couldn’t tell me what drugs were in my drinking water, but it did show levels of contaminants such as trihalomethanes as over the legal limit several times during the five-year period of testing. Trihalomethanes are disinfectants that are applied to water in treatment plants and have been linked to liver, kidney and central nervous system problems, plus an increased risk of cancer. Oh, joy.

On the plus side, no mercury showed up in our drinking water. So there’s that.

I briefly considered converting my entire drinking water supply to bottled, until I realized that it could actually be worse for our health, because:

1. A Natural Resources Defense Council report found that 25% of bottled drinking water is actually tap water.

2. Although they now must label bottled water from municipal sources, manufacturers aren’t required to regularly test their water—or disclose what they find in it—unlike tap water, which is tested weekly by the EPA.

3. Many plastic water bottles contain hormone disrupting chemicals like BPA, which can leach into water.

4. Bottled water is expensive—ringing up as much as $50 per month for a family of four. And we’ve got five.

Instead, I took a deeper look at our refrigerator filtration system, which I use for cooking and drinking water. Ours is carbon made from coconut shells, which filters for chlorine, lead, sediment, dirt and rust. And I know from reading up on the EPA study that charcoal does work to filter some pharmaceuticals. Phew!

In the meantime, I checked out additional filtration options at EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide. I’m fantasizing about a whole house reverse osmosis filter, which addresses substances that carbon can’t, such as arsenic and chromium—also detected in my drinking water—as well as perchlorate, which wasn’t.

And I’m also trying not to obsess about the drugs in our drinking water—although the study findings were truly frightening. Scientists examined samples from 50 wastewater plants and tested for 56 different drugs; they found medication to treat high blood pressure was found in the highest quantities, but over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and prescription drugs such as hydrocodone were also found.

It does make sense, considering a 2013 Mayo Clinic Study which found that 70 percent of Americans now take prescription drugs, compared to 48 percent just five years ago. The drugs get into our water when we excrete them or flush old drugs down the toilet.

But because the pharmaceuticals register in such small amounts—measured in parts per billion, in some cases—health officials aren’t worried about the risk to humans. However, some are concerned about their effect on plants and wildlife, especially fish.

In fact, last year the FDA denied a petition that would have required pharmaceutical companies to do a more thorough analysis of how drugs in wastewater will affect aquatic life.

In the meantime, scientists have been measuring pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supply for more than a decade, after fish were found to have both male and female characteristics linked to oral contraceptives.

Giving me even more reason to change my water filter.



  1. When considering NRDC’s claims, it is important to note that the 14 year-old study cited often cited by bottled water critics has been extensively rebutted and shown to be disingenuous and inaccurate.

    The NRDC surveyed more than 1,200 bottles of bottled water, looking for roughly 57 contaminants. Throughout all of their analysis, the NRDC found not one instance of contamination that would raise a legitimate health concern. For example, the NRDC report’s lengthy discussion of heterotrophic plate count (HPC) bacteria is both misleading and completely irrelevant to the safety of bottled water. HPC is found in all water and many food products, and has been studied extensively by EPA and FDA.

    The NRDC report is an extensive initiative to find fault with the bottled water sold in the United States, and a dispassionate review reveals that NRDC failed to accomplish this objective. The fact is, and the report’s findings reflect, that bottled water is among the most highly regulated food products by the FDA under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) (“FFDCA,” 21 U.S.C. s. 301 et seq.).

    The Drinking Water Research Foundation conducted a detailed analysis of the NRDC’s report, which can be found here:

  2. Hi,I represent the bottled water industry and want to provide your readers with some important facts about this discussion.

    Bottled water is comprehensively regulated by the FDA as a packaged food product and it provides a consistently safe and reliable source of drinking water. By federal law, the FDA regulations governing the safety and quality of bottled water must be at least as stringent as the EPA standards for tap water. And, in some very important cases like lead, coliform bacteria, and E. coli, bottled water regulations are substantially more stringent.

    PET plastic bottles, commonly small, portable 16.9 (half-liter) and 24 ounce sizes, are safe and reliable for food contact use. PET is used in a variety of packaging for many foods, including everything from peanut butter, soft drinks, and juices to beer, wine, and spirits. PET is approved as safe for food and beverage contact by the FDA and similar regulatory agencies throughout the world, and has been for over 30 years. Also, PET plastic never contains BPA.

    Regarding your comments on testing, the fact is that on a gallon-for-gallon basis, bottled water is tested up to 30 times more frequently than tap water for nearly all of the same contaminants. Both bottled water and public water supply plants test more frequently than EPA or FDA requires, frequently multiple times per day.

    As a popular retail food product, bottled water is available at many differing price points. When alluding to differences in cost between tap and bottled water, opponents typically cite retail prices from convenience or drug stores, where bottled water prices are typically higher.

    Anyone who would like to learn more can vist

  3. Municipal water providers across the nation are in the midst of testing for hexavalent chromium [Chromium-6], a cancer-causing heavy metal that is currently unregulated in U.S. drinking tap water. Hexavalent chromium can result from industrial pollution seeping into drinking water sources, but it also occurs naturally in some areas. Studies that found hexavalent chromium was associated with cancer and other health problems involving levels of the chemical. Invest in protecting you and your family using a 40 year proven “The Water of Life” PiMag filter here –

  4. I drink mostly bottled water and feel guilty about all that plastic. Investing in a proper filter seems like a good idea.

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      It’s so much better for you, and for the planet too. Check out that filter guide it’s really helpful!

  5. Great article! I had a similar freak out moment after reading the same EPA study! Here’s what I did… used the EWG water filter guide to compare water pitchers. Turns out, Pur filters more of the contaminants that I was concerned about than Brita (who knew?). Then I purchased a GE whole-home filter to get the chlorine out of our shower/bath water (our skin soaks that up!). Between the 2 filters, I feel much better! I wrote more, and have some links, in my post “11 Chemicals Found Toxic to the Brain. 12 Simple Things You Can Do” :

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      Thanks for sharing Liane! I am dying for the whole home filter. Was it expensive? Do you like yours? What model? That might be my birthday present to the family 🙂

      • Below is a link to the whole home filter we purchased – it’s a GE Carbon filter for $70 plus $30 for the filter… it doesn’t remove everything (reverse osmosis would be the best for that!). But, I really wanted to get the chlorine out of our bathing/showering water. Then I rely on the Pur pitcher (~$20) to remove pesticides, heavy metals, and other junk our of our drinking water. For around $100 (plus filters) I think this is a pretty good system!! Although… whole home reverse osmosis would be an awesome birthday present 🙂

  6. Thanks for re-upping my fear of water lol. I try NOT to worry about this but with out water we die O.0

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      Oh no! Definitely drink water! Just make sure you know what’s in it, and how to filter most of it out! I don’t want to scare you off water!


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