Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Multi-region assessment of pharmaceutical exposures and predicted effects in USA wadeable urban-gradient streams

January 30, 2020

Human-use pharmaceuticals in urban streams link aquatic-ecosystem health to human health. Pharmaceutical mixtures have been widely reported in larger streams due to historical emphasis on wastewater-treatment plant (WWTP) sources, with limited investigation of pharmaceutical exposures and potential effects in smaller headwater streams. In 2014–2017, the United States Geological Survey measured 111 pharmaceutical compounds in 308 headwater streams (261 urban-gradient sites sampled 3–5 times, 47 putative low-impact sites sampled once) in 4 regions across the US. Simultaneous exposures to multiple pharmaceutical compounds (pharmaceutical mixtures) were observed in 91% of streams (248 urban-gradient, 32 low-impact), with 88 analytes detected across all sites and cumulative maximum concentrations up to 36,142 ng/L per site. Cumulative detections and concentrations correlated to urban land use and presence/absence of permitted WWTP discharges, but pharmaceutical mixtures also were common in the 75% of sampled streams without WWTP. Cumulative exposure-activity ratios (EAR) indicated widespread transient exposures with high probability of molecular effects to vertebrates. Considering the potential individual and interactive effects of the detected pharmaceuticals and the recognized analytical underestimation of the pharmaceutical-contaminant (unassessed parent compounds, metabolites, degradates) space, these results demonstrate a nation-wide environmental concern and the need for watershed-scale mitigation of in-stream pharmaceutical contamination.