Dosing the Coast: Leaking Sewage Infrastructure Delivers Large Annual Doses and Dynamic Mixtures of Pharmaceuticals to Urban Rivers

Environ Sci Technol. 2021 Sep 7;55(17):11637-11645. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.1c00379. Epub 2021 Aug 18.


Pharmaceuticals are commonly detected at low concentrations in surface waters, where they disrupt biological and ecological processes. Despite their ubiquity, the annual mass of pharmaceuticals exported from watersheds is rarely quantified. We used liquid chromatography-mass spectroscopy to screen for 92 pharmaceuticals in weekly samples from an urban stream network in Baltimore, MD, USA, that lacks wastewater treatment effluents. Across the network, we detected 37 unique compounds, with higher concentrations and more compounds in streams with higher population densities. We also used concentrations and stream discharge to calculate annual pharmaceutical loads at the watershed outlet, which range from less than 1 kg to ∼15 kg and are equivalent to tens of thousands of human doses. By calculating annual watershed mass balances for eight compounds, we show that ∼0.05 to ∼42% of the pharmaceuticals consumed by humans in this watershed are released to surface waters, with the importance of different pathways (leaking sewage vs treated wastewater effluent) differing among compounds. These results demonstrate the importance of developing, maintaining, and improving sewage infrastructure to protect water resources from pharmaceutical contamination.

Keywords: budget; emerging contaminants; flux; mass balance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations*
  • Rivers
  • Sewage
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical* / analysis


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Sewage
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical