Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in the Environment

brown medicine bottle spilling out vitamins and pharmaceutical drugs

The U.S. EPA defines pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) as “any product used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons or used by agribusiness to enhance growth or health of livestock.” This definition encompasses thousands of chemicals that make up fragrances, cosmetics, over-the-counter drugs, and veterinary medicines. The U.S. EPA has identified PPCPs as emerging contaminants of concern because little is known about these contaminants’ impact on the environment or risks to human health when they are released into ecosystems.

Common PPCPs

  • Caffeine (a bitter substance found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate, kola nuts, and certain medicines)
  • Carbamazepine (an anticonvulsant and mood-stabilizing drug used primarily in the treatment of epilepsy and bipolar disorder)
  • Gemfribrozil (used to lower lipid levels)
  • Ibuprofen (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that is commonly used to treat pain, swelling, and fever)
  • Naproxen (used to treat pain or inflammation caused by arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, tendinitis, and gout)
  • Sulfamethoxazole (used to treat infections such as urinary tract infections, middle ear infections, bronchitis)
  • Triclosan (antibacterial and antifungal agent found in consumer products)
  • Estrogens (Estrone · 17α-Ethinylestradiol · 17β-Estradiol – the three main estrogens produced by the human body)

PPCPs can enter the ecosystem in a number of ways (Figure 1). For example, wastewater effluents from sewage treatment plants and large animal farms have been identified to be major sources discharging these emerging contaminants into the surrounding water bodies. That is because many pharmaceuticals and supplements are made with higher concentrations of chemical compounds than the human body or animals can process. Humans and animals process the chemicals to varying degrees. In some cases, we incorporate 95% of the active ingredient. In other cases, it’s closer to 5%. Either way, portions of these chemicals are unused by the body and are excreted as waste or are washed off into shower or sink drains. Also, people may dispose of their unwanted PPCPs improperly by either dumping them down the sewer or putting them into the trash. In addition to man made PPCPs, a number of hormones are naturally excreted by humans and animals. These contaminants could pose a potential risk both to the receiving ecosystems and to drinking water resources.

In fact, PPCPs have been detected in many of the lakes, rivers, and streams in the United States, though usually at very low levels (ppb or ppt). The occurrence of PPCPs in groundwater and surface water impacts the water quality and can cause a series of negative effects for aquatic species. For example, steroid hormones are highly potent endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which, even at levels as low as nanograms per liter (10-9 g/L or ppt), can adversely affect the reproductive biology of aquatic species.

Aquatic organisms may not be the only ones affected. PPCPs in water could be taken up by plant roots and may accumulate in the edible portions of the plant. As water supplies become increasingly scarce due to drought, climate change, and increased use, recycled wastewater for irrigation will become more common. However, using these contaminated waters for agricultural irrigation may introduce wastewater-associated antibiotics and pathogens to irrigated fields. This fact evokes concern about potential uptake and accumulation of PPCP contaminants in plants and the transfer of those contaminants up the food chain.

ISTC researchers are conducting various projects to examine the occurrence, fate & transport, and uptake into plants as well as mitigation techniques of PPCPs in the environment.

Learn more about PPCPs with 25+ videos on our YouTube channel.

Figure 1: Ways PPCPs Enter the Environment

drawing of three houses on top of land that is side cut to show septic leachate and municpal sewage leakage traveling into an aquifer

This drawing shows the pathway between homes and septic or municipal sewage facilities. - U.S. EPA

drawing of a sewage treatment facility with three outlets for PPCPs: groundwater recharge, effluent to lake, and sludge put ag lands, ag run off into lakes

This drawing shows some of the contributions of sewage, biosolids and farms to PPCPs in the environment. - U.S. EPA

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