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Frequent Questions

chemical structure of Azithromycin

Azithromycin is a synthetic version of a naturally produced macrolide antibiotic - - erythromycin. It is among the top 10 of the most widely prescribed pharmaceuticals and can be frequently found in environmental samples.

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Consumer Focus

Scientific Focus

Consumer Focus

What are "PPCPs"?

Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products as Pollutants (PPCPs) refers, in general, to any product used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons or used by agribusiness to enhance growth or health of livestock. PPCPs comprise a diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances, including prescription and over-the-counter therapeutic drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances, lotions, and cosmetics.

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What are the major sources of PPCPs in the environment?

Sources of PPCPs:

The importance of individuals adding chemicals to the environment has been largely overlooked. The discovery of PPCPs in water and soil shows even simple activities like shaving, using lotion, or taking medication affect the environment in which you live.

People contribute PPCPs to the environment when:

Personal use and manufacturing of illicit drugs are a less visible source of PPCPs entering the environment.

Many of the issues pertaining to the introduction of drugs to the environment from human usage also pertain to veterinary use, especially for antibiotics and steroids.

This poster shows a generalized synopsis of the sources of PPCPs in the environment (PDF). (1pp, poster, 307KB)

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What is the overall scientific concern?

Studies have shown that pharmaceuticals are present in our nation's waterbodies. Further research suggests that certain drugs may cause ecological harm. More research is needed to determine the extent of ecological harm and any role it may have in potential human health effects. To date, scientists have found no evidence of adverse human health effects from PPCPs in the environment.

Reasons for concern:

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Should we be worried about ecological and/or human health?

Studies have shown that pharmaceuticals are present in some of our nation's waterbodies. Further research suggests that there may be some ecological harm when certain drugs are present. To date, no evidence has been found of human health effects from PPCPs in the environment.

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Where are PPCPs found in the environment?

PPCPs are found where people or animals are treated with drugs and people use personal care products. PPCPs are found in any water body influenced by raw or treated sewage, including rivers, streams, ground water, coastal marine environments, and many drinking water sources. PPCPs have been identified in most places sampled.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) implemented a national reconnaissance to provide baseline information on the environmental occurrence of PPCPs in water resources. You can find more information about this project from the USGS's What's in Our Wastewaters and Where Does it Go? site.

PPCPs in the environment are frequently found in aquatic environments because PPCPs dissolve easily and don't evaporate at normal temperature and pressures. Practices such as the use of sewage sludge ("biosolids") and reclaimed water for irrigation brings PPCPs into contact with the soil.

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How is the disposal of unused pharmaceuticals regulated by the US EPA?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a federal law controlling the management and disposal of solid and hazardous wastes produced by a wide variety of industries and sources. The RCRA program regulates the management and disposal of hazardous pharmaceutical wastes produced by pharmaceutical manufacturers and the health care industry. Under RCRA, a waste is a hazardous waste if it is specifically listed by the EPA or if it exhibits one or more of the following four characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity and toxicity.

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How do I properly dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals?

In February 2007, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued the first consumer guidance for the Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs (pdf, 1pp, 95 KB) Exit EPA Disclaimer. Proper disposal of drugs is a straightforward way for individuals to prevent pollution.

RCRA does not regulate any household waste, which includes medications/pharmaceutical waste generated in a household. While discarded pharmaceuticals under the control of consumers are not regulated by RCRA, EPA encourages the public:

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Who can I contact for more information?

You can contact an EPA regional representative or a program office representative.

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Scientific Focus

Where Did the Acronym PPCPs Originate?

The acronym "PPCPs" was coined in the 1999 critical review published in Environmental Health Perspectives (PDF) (41pp, 789 KB) to refer to Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products. PPCPs comprise a very broad, diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances, including prescription, veterninary, and over-the-counter (OTC) therapeutic drugs, fragrances, cosmetics, sun-screen agents, diagnostic agents, nutraceuticals, biopharmaceuticals, growth enhancing chemicals used in livestock operations, and many others. This broad collection of substances refers, in general, to any product used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons. Since its introduction in 1999, the acronym PPCPs has become the most frequently adopted term in both the technical and popular literature and therefore is a useful keyword for performing literature searches.

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What was EPA's historical role in this area?

EPA established a leadership role beginning in 1999 with publication of a critical review (PDF) (41pp, 789 KB) article that attempted to bring together the many different aspects of this complex issue.

From the beginning, a major objective has been to stimulate a proactive versus a reactive approach to this environmental issue. The work was driven by goals from the U.S. EPA's Strategic Plan. The relevant goals included:

In addition, a primary goal of the U.S. EPA's Office of Research and Development is to identify and foster investigation of potential environmental issues/concerns before they become critical ecological or human health problems. Pollution prevention (e.g., source elimination or minimization) is preferable to remediation or restoration to minimize both public cost and human/ecological exposure.

Current Work:

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In what quantities are PPCPs used or introduced to the environment?

As a whole, PPCPs are produced and used in large quantities. Personal care products tend to be made in extremely large quantities - thousands of tons per year. But quantities of production or consumption do not correspond with the quantities of PPCPs introduced to the environment. PPCPs manufactured in large quantities may not be found in the environment if they are easily broken down and processed by the human body or degrade quickly. PPCPs made in small quantities could be over represented in the environment, if they are not easily broken down and processed by the human body and make their way into domestic sewers.

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What are some major issues with respect to effects?

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How can I contact scientists working on this topic?

Contact information for research scientists with active research about PPCPs in the environment and government scientists with interest in regulatory aspects, is available. Listing of research scientists and their contact information. (PDF) (2pp, 16KB)

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PPCPs Home | Office of Research and Development


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