USGS - science for a changing world

Environmental Health - Toxic Substances

Science Features
Facebook share Twitter share Google Plus share Email share Add this share EH Headlines RSS Feed EH Headlines Email Signup

Manufacturing Facilities Release Pharmaceuticals to the Environment

USGS hydrologic technicians collect a stream sample from Hallocks Mill Brook downstream of the outfall of one of the wastewater treatment plants investigated.
U.S. Geological Survey hydrologic technicians collect a stream sample from Hallocks Mill Brook downstream of the outfall of one of the wastewater treatment plants investigated.

In a 2004-2009 study, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists found that pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities can be a significant source of pharmaceuticals to the environment. Effluents from two wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) that receive discharge from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities (PMFs) had 10 to 1000 times higher concentrations of pharmaceuticals than effluents from 24 WWTPs across the nation that do not receive PMF discharge. The effluents from these two WWTPs are discharged to streams where the measured pharmaceuticals were traced downstream, and as far as 30 kilometers from one plant's outfall.

This is the first study in the United States that assesses PMFs as a potential source of pharmaceuticals to the environment. The PMFs investigated are pharmaceutical formulation facilities, where ingredients are combined to form final drug products and products are packaged for distribution. While pharmaceuticals have been measured in many streams and aquifers across the nation, levels are generally lower than one part per billion (1 ppb). Concerns persist, however, that higher levels may occur in environmental settings where wastewaters are released to the environment.

In this study, 35 to 38 effluent samples were collected from each of three WWTPs in New York State and one effluent sample was collected from each of 23 strategically selected WWTPs across the nation. The samples were analyzed for seven target pharmaceuticals including opioids and muscle relaxants, some of which have not been previously studied in the environment. Pharmaceutical concentrations in effluents from two of the three WWTPs in New York State, which both receive more than 20 percent of their discharge from PMFs, were compared to the measurements made at the third plant in New York State and at the other 23 plants across the nation, which all do not receive discharge from PMFs. Maximum pharmaceutical concentrations in effluent samples from the 24 WWTPs that do not receive discharge from PMFs rarely (about 1 percent) exceeded one part per billion (ppb). By contrast, maximum concentrations in effluents from the two WWTPs receiving PMF discharge were as high as 3,800 ppb of metaxalone (a muscle relaxant), 1,700 ppb of oxycodone (an opioid prescribed for pain relief), greater than 400 ppb of methadone (an opioid prescribed for pain relief and drug withdrawal), 160 ppb of butalbital (a barbituate), and greater than 40 ppb of both phendimetrazine (a stimulant prescribed for obesity) and carisoprodol (a muscle relaxant).

The pharmaceuticals investigated in this study were identified using a forensic approach that identified pharmaceuticals present in samples and subsequently developed methods to quantify these pharmaceuticals at a wide range of concentrations. Additional pharmaceuticals, which may be formulated at these sites, also were identified as present in the effluents of these two WWTPs. Ongoing studies are documenting the levels at which these additional pharmaceuticals occur in the environment. Information on other contaminants measured in the outflows of these WWTPs during this study are presented in Phillips and others, 2008. The environmental data, a description of the methods used, information on quality-assurance methods and protocols, and quality-control data are available in an accompanying USGS Open-File Report.

This study is part of a long-term effort by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program to determine the fate and effects of chemicals of emerging environmental concern and to provide water-resource managers with objective information that assists in the development of effective water management practices.


Phillips, P.J., Smith, S.G., Kolpin, D.W., Zaugg, S.D., Buxton, H.T., Furlong, E.T., Esposito, Kathleen, and Stinson, Beverley, 2010, Pharmaceutical formulation facilities as sources of opioids and other pharmaceuticals to wastewater treatment plant effluents: Environmental Science and Technology

Phillips, P.J., Smith, S.G., Kolpin, D.W., Zaugg, S.D., Buxton, H.T., Furlong, E.T., Esposito, Kathleen, and Stinson, Beverley, 2010, Method description, quality assurance, environmental data, and other information for analysis of pharmaceuticals in wastewater-treatment-plant effluents, stream water, and reservoirs, 2004-2009: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010-1102, 2010.

Phillips, P.J., Stinson, B., Zaugg, S.D., Furlong, E.T., Kolpin, D.W., Esposito, K.M., Bodniewicz, B., Pape, R., and Anderson, J., 2008, A multi-disciplinary approach to the removal of emerging contaminants in municipal wastewater treatment plans in New York State, 2003-2004: Clearwaters, v. 38, no. 3, p. 48-59.

More Information

Related Science Features

More Science Features

Get Acrobat

The page either contains links to .pdf files, which can be viewed with Adobe Reader®.
You can download Adobe Reader® for free.

USGS Home Water Climate Change Science Systems Ecosystems Energy and Minerals Environmental Health Hazards

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information:
Page Last Modified: Tuesday, 04-Aug-2015 14:42:16 EDT