Initial Publication Date: December 13, 2012

"Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products"

Author: Kyle Hirsch

This case study is part of a collection of pages developed by students in the 2012 introductory-level Geology and Human Health course in the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University. Learn more about this project.

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) have been polluting our water and soil ever since prescription drugs and beauty products have been readily available to the public. While there is no end in sight for the demand of such items, research in this field is extremely important in order to discover how it is truly effecting the world's populations and how to mitigate the pollution levels.

Introduction to "PPCP" Pollution

Although pharmaceuticals and personal care products or "PPCPs" have been readily available to the public for the better part of a century, the research of "PPCP" pollution is a relatively new field.

"PPCPs" include all prescription and over-the-counter medications made for human, veterinary, or agribusiness uses such as, antibiotics, supplements, sexual enhancement drugs, growth hormones, and birth control hormones. They also include cosmetic, soap, and feminine products.

The major issue with PPCPs is the individual scale at which they are used. Just about every member of the U.S. Population uses at least one "PPCP" daily. Since the demand for "PPCPs" is continuously rising, the pollution levels are as well.

Sources of PPCP Pollution

The 6 sources of PPCP pollution deemed most dangerous by the EPA are:

-Human activity

-Residues from pharmaceutical manufacturing (well defined and controlled)

-Residues from hospitals

-Illicit drugs

-Veterinary drug use, especially antibiotics and steroids


"PPCP" Transport

"PPCPs" enter the environment via human waste excretion and bathing, as well as direct disposal of unused medications, and the residues mentioned above. The pollution occurs when these products are introduced, and are allowed to spread throughout surface and groundwater systems. The most common source of this introduction is through individual disposal via toilet or drain system.

Those who use medications only absorb so much of what they ingest, the rest is excreted. When the left over "PPCPs" are flushed down the toilet or washed down the drain. Sewage and water treatment facilities do not remove most of these contaminants, thus they eventually make contact with larger water systems.

This EPA poster gives further insight into the Sources and Transport of "PPCPs"

Bioavailability and Uptake

PPCPs are mainly taken up via contact with contaminated water. Because of this, aquatic species have been a major focus in researching the bioavailability of these compounds.

The uptake and bioavailability of PPCPs in soils is sensitive to many environmental conditions, like Ph and other soil characteristics. Any Data on PPCP uptake through the food chain is virtually non-existent, thus, much research remains to be done before the scale of PPCP bioavailability is truly known.

Impacts on Human Health

A major public and scientific concern on this topic is that as PPCP levels rise, the consumption of water containing antibodies from drugs like penicillin and Zithromax may lead to increased resistance to antibiotic drugs.

another issue is increasing estrogen levels in water. this has the potential to cause negative effects in humans, especially boys and men who do not develop this hormone naturally.

While it has been discovered that "PPCPs" are present in many of U.S. bodies of water, the EPA claims that "To date, no evidence has been found of human health effects from "PPCPs" in the environment."

Although there are no proven impacts on human health, "PPCP" pollution is believed to be linked to some ecological damage within aquatic ecosystems such as delayed development in fish, delayed metamorphosis in frogs, and a variety of reactions including altered behavior and reproduction.

Prevention or Mitigation

There is no substantial evidence that these compounds are dangerous to humans and because sewage and water treatment facilities are not equipped with the necessary technology to remove PPCPs. Thus mitigation on a large scale is currently deemed unnecessary, and fairly impossible. The EPA does encourage the proper disposal of unused medications in order to reduce the PPCP pollution at the individual level.

The major suggestion that experts make in the interest of individual "PPCP" pollution prevention is to never flush unused medications down the toilet.

The EPA website link below explains the guidelines for proper medication disposal; it also lists and answers many frequently asked questions relating to "PPCPs"

Recommended Readings

The reading below is a 2012 entery in "Environmental Health Perspectives" journal. it adresses the "big questions" about "PPCPs"

François Gagné, et al. "Pharmaceuticals And Personal Care Products In The Environment: What Are The Big Questions?."Environmental Health Perspectives 120.9 (2012): 1221-1229. Academic Search Complete. Web. 9 Dec. 201

Related Links

"Frequent Questions", Environmental Protection Agency,, This site lists and answers some popular questions related to "PPCPs"

"FAQs about PPCPs: Montana Focus",MT Dept. of Environmental Quality, This site goes into further detail about all facets of the "PPCP" problem, and how it effects the state of Montana

"Life Down The Drain", Washington State University Students,, This is a site created by WSU students addressing the "PPCP" issue