pharmaceuticals in water A\J Photo © Miroslaw Dziadkowiec \

There’s a type of water pollution that doesn’t start at a factory, a power plant or a toxic dump site.

It starts right in your home.

The pollutants are the unused and unwanted medications (prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and some personal care products) that are improperly disposed of, as well as the pharmaceuticals that we pass from our bodies.

Small but measurable amounts of these pharmaceuticals are showing up in the environment, primarily in water (surface water, groundwater and drinking water) and soil. The levels are miniscule, but some researchers are worried that long-term exposure to this medication cocktail could prove harmful to both human health and the health of our ecosystems. The spectrum of medications is significant, too. Scientists are finding a vast array of drugs, such as antibiotics, antidepressants, reproductive hormones and ibuprofen.

To flush or not to flush

It was once common practice to flush unwanted pharmaceuticals down the toilet or pour them down the drain. Our water supply is treated to remove impurities, but it’s impossible to remove every trace of drugs, so they end up in the environment. Throwing medications out with the trash is also a bad idea—pharmaceuticals in a landfill can end up in groundwater. The landfill liner can leak, and leachate, a liquid which contains harmful substances, can contaminate the local groundwater.

A better solution

Disposing of pharmaceuticals safely helps protect our water resources. To encourage proper disposal, the Ontario Clean Water Agency and the Clean Water Foundation have partnered to create a new campaign, A Prescription for Clean Water. This public awareness initiative encourages Ontarians to return their unused and unwanted medications to pharmacies, where they can be disposed of safely. In addition to contributing to a cleaner environment, taking back your unwanted pharmaceuticals can make your home safer by reducing the risk of accidental poisoning of children and prescription drug abuse.

For more information and to find out where to take your unwanted medications, visit You can also find drop-off locations in all provinces and Nunavut at

About OCWA

The Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) provides environmentally responsible and cost-effective water and wastewater services to municipalities, institutions, industry and First Nations. Established as a provincial crown agency in 1993, OCWA operations, engineering and technical services provide clean water expertise to communities and businesses all across Ontario.

About the Clean Water Foundation

The Clean Water Foundation is a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to engaging individuals in actions that preserve, protect and improve our water. It works in partnership with public, private and charitable interests to create policies that encourage water friendly behaviours.

For more ways to keep unwanted chemicals out of your home and body, read Jessica Burman's series on toxins in every day products, starting with parabens.

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