Emerging Contaminants in Drinking Water Survey

In an effort to understand whether emerging contaminants are a cause for concern among consumers, NSF International surveyed more than 1,000 American consumers.

Consumers who took part in this survey were asked to rank their concern about contaminants like prescription drugs, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, some newer herbicides and pesticides, flame retardants and detergents as well as to describe their disposal habits for some of these products. Although the health risks associated with trace levels of these emerging contaminants are not yet well understood, they are not considered a public health concern at this time.  

The survey revealed that a vast majority (82 percent) of consumers report they are concerned about the negative health effects of trace levels of emerging contaminants in drinking water. Women (67 percent) were more likely than men (53 percent) to be somewhat or very concerned.

The presence in drinking water of pesticides and herbicides, followed by pharmaceutical drugs, were identified as the most significant concerns for consumers.

  • Eighty-seven (87) percent indicated pesticides and herbicides were of the greatest concern.  
  • Other concerns included:
    • Prescription drugs (34 percent)
    • Detergents (24 percent)
    • Flame retardants (18 percent)
    • Over the counter medicines (14 percent)

Despite these concerns, the survey indicated the majority of consumers still improperly dispose of some of these emerging contaminants by throwing unused prescription and OTC drugs in the garbage (34 percent) or flushing them down the toilet (19 percent). Only 28 percent correctly bring them to a pharmacist or clinic for disposal.

  • Millennials are much more likely than other age groups to simply throw medicines in the garbage.
    • 18-34 years = 46 percent
    • Everyone else (35+ years) = 29 percent
  • Older respondents are much more likely to dispose of their medicines by taking them to a pharmacist, hospital, clinic or other designated collection site.
    • 55+ years = 37 percent
    • Everyone else (Less than 55 years) = 23 percent

The results of this survey clearly show that consumers are very aware of emerging contaminants in drinking water and are concerned about potential negative health effects. To help address these concerns, NSF International developed a standard, NSF/ANSI 401: Drinking Water Treatment Units - Emerging Compounds/Incidental Contaminants, that evaluates the ability of water treatment devices to reduce up to 15 emerging contaminants in drinking water.

Products covered by NSF/ANSI 401 include several types of point-of-use (POU) and point-of-entry (POE) systems including pitchers, faucet mount, counter top, refrigerator, under sink, plumbed-in and sports bottle type filtration systems as well as POU reverse osmosis systems. A list of products that are currently NSF certified to meet this standard can be found on NSF’s drinking water listings page.

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