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Environmental Health: Action Needed to Sustain Agencies' Collaboration on Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

GAO-11-346 Published: Aug 08, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 08, 2011.
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Drinking water in some metropolitan areas contains concentrations of pharmaceuticals, raising concerns about their potential impact on human health. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, in public drinking water systems if they may adversely affect human health among other criteria. Pharmaceuticals may enter drinking water supplies from several pathways, including discharge from wastewater facilities. GAO was asked to provide information on the (1) extent to which pharmaceuticals occur in drinking water and their effects, if any, on human health; (2) U.S. and other countries' approaches to reducing their occurrence; and (3) challenges, if any, that EPA faces in determining whether to regulate pharmaceuticals. GAO reviewed federal and peer-reviewed reports, and surveyed a nonprobability sample of five U.S. programs designed to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals. We selected these programs based on geographic diversity and program characteristics. We also researched such programs in two countries, and interviewed scientists and agency officials.


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency To collect the pharmaceutical occurrence and health effects data necessary to better implement SDWA, and to address the broader issue of pharmaceuticals and their relationship to other contaminants in the nation's waterways, the Administrator of EPA should establish a workgroup or other formal mechanism that includes the relevant federal agencies to collaborate and coordinate research on pharmaceuticals and, as appropriate, other contaminants in drinking water that present the greatest public health concern. In establishing this mechanism, EPA should: (1) define roles and responsibilities, including how the collaborative effort will be led; (2) identify the expertise and other resources that each agency can bring to bear on the issue; and (3) develop a process for monitoring, evaluating, and reporting to the public the results of the collaborative research efforts.
Closed – Implemented
In December 2012, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of the Interior's U.S. Geological Survey established a formal mechanism to improve and sustain federal coordination and collaboration on issues related to pharmaceuticals in drinking water. The MOU established a steering committee, consisting of representatives from the above mentioned agencies, that is responsible for establishing and leading an interagency workgroup whose activities will encompass a broad range of topics related to pharmaceuticals in water. In May 2015, the EPA reported that the workgroup has met regularly since June 2013 and is moving forward in identifying gaps in research, and opportunities for sustainable collaborations on stewardship, outreach and research.

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AntibioticsContaminantsEnvironmental monitoringEnvironmental policiesFederal regulationsHealth hazardsInteragency relationsPotable waterPublic healthRegulatory agenciesSafe drinking waterWastewaterWater pollution controlWater qualityWater supply