Pharmaceutical Contaminants In SA Drinking Water

Professor Hugh Patterton, head researcher at Stellenbosch University, and his team recently released an eye-opening study on the contaminants in South Africa’s drinking water. They found 34 pharmaceuticals and pesticides present in the water, which have never before been identified – the professor refers to these as Contaminants of Immerging Concern.

“Contaminants of emerging concern are compounds that we previously did not identify or understand the health impact of,” Explains Patterton. “ There have been studies done in Europe testing for pharmaceuticals and pesticides in drinking water, however, this is the first study testing for these that we have released in South Africa.”

The Health Impact

drinking water

The first question on everyone’s lips is how harmful are these contaminants to our health? According to Patterton it is a difficult question to answer as no longitudinal studies have been conducted.

“These contaminants occur at very low frequency. So there is no immediate health danger to drinking the water. However, what the effect of consuming them, even in such small amounts, over a twenty year period might be…we are not sure. That is why we are attempting to create awareness and calling for further research in this area,” says Patterton.

There have been studies overseas where certain levels of pharmaceutical contaminant intake through water have been linked to the low birth weight issues in a certain area or community. There have also been studies which show that should the contaminants act as an endocrine disrupter, there is the possibility of unborn babies and young children being negatively impacted. Either through the development of deformed genitals (in an unborn child) or through brain damage (in small children).

However, the professor stressed that at this point there is no cause for alarm. They have no evidence to show that any of the contaminants in South African water cause immediate or serious health challenges.

How Did The Contamination of  SA’s Drinking Water Occur?

Medication and pills

The second question  is how did the water become contaminated in the first place? And, while most are quick to accuse pharmaceutical companies, Patterton says the biggest threat comes from the South African household.

“The problem is that many people are disposing of their old or unused pharmaceuticals in an inappropriate and dangerous manner. They either throw them in a dustbin, which gets them dumped at a landfill, where they can then dissolve into our ground level drinking water, or they flush them down the toilet which puts them straight back into the water system.

“The other issue is simply one of excrement. When someone is on medication and they use the bathroom the pharmaceutical products that were not taken in by the body are also excreted and recycled, through the sewerage system, back into our drinking water.”

Patterton acknowledged that at the moment there are no formal institutions in SA which are assisting in the correct disposal of pharmaceutical products. He called on big pharmaceutical companies to get involved and provide the correct facilities for consumer disposal.

Why Haven’t Our Water Filtering Systems Picked Up The Contaminants?

scientist taking a sample of contaminated water

Patterton explained that while our current water filtering system is world class it is not designed to look for pesticide or pharmaceutical compounds. It is designed to look for and remove; bacteria, viruses, microbes and micronutrients.

He recommended that the government work towards a system upgrade which will identify and eliminate a broader variety of contaminants.

The Impact On The Environment

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Pharmaceutical contaminants that occur in fresh water systems have be show to affect the reproductive system of the aquatic animals living in that particular body of water. Patterton says that one will often find a situation where there are many females of a species and few males and on top of that many of the males have become infertile.

He said that in other species an accumulative affect can also occur. One where the accumulation of contaminants in the fish can be dangerous to those animals that hunt them, like humans for instance.

The most dangerous pharmaceutical product that we pass on to other species through our fresh water supplies are the remnants of contraceptives.

What Can You Do?


The professor advises installing and active charcoal reverse osmosis filter onto your taps, as these are the only filters which actually remove the pharmaceutical and pesticide contaminants. He added that he himself uses such a filter.

He cautioned that consumers should be as wary of bottled water as tapped water as some of the brands of bottled water that they tested also contain these contaminants. He was not at liberty to release the names of the brands.

He suggested an investigation into the runoff from farm animal excrement, as antibiotics are used in large amounts in the rearing of animals.

He also suggested that consumers should think about reducing the amount of soaps, creams and other lotions that they use as these only add to rising number of contaminants in our drinking water.