Measuring the drugs in our water supply

It’s long been known that pharmaceutical drugs are showing up in our water supplies. Leftover pills dumped in the garbage or unmetabolized drugs excreted from our bodies have few other places to go.

But few studies of the concentration of those drugs in our water have been as exacting as the one just completed by Radboud University in the Netherlands.

The study looked at just two compounds: ciprofloxacin, a common antibiotic, and carbamazepine, a drug used to treat epilepsy. The scientists found that the drugs’ concentrations in our water supply – and, therefore, the resulting dangers – had grown 20-fold from 1995 to 2015.

Ciprofloxacin Carbamazepine has become a go-to antibiotic and has become a player in the global alarm about increased antibiotic resistance in humans. But it has also reached levels in the water that can kill useful bacteria and disrupt nutrient cycles for marine life.

The scientists hope their work will prompt additional measurements of drug concentrations in our water supply and spark action to curb them.


Worries about the overuse of drugs have focused on consequences within the medical world. The Radboud study highlights the fact that the natural world is also at risk from over-reliance on synthetic drugs. Investigations such as this one will prompt medical providers and policymakers to recognize the need for changes in our attitudes about drug use.

Skip to content