Canada: Pharmaceuticals, Drinking Water, And Liability

Last Updated: May 20 2011
Article by Dianne Saxe

The better our detection ability becomes, the more things we find in the water. One important group of those things is pharmaceuticals and their metabolites. Pharmaceuticals are specifically designed to affect the bodies, brains and behaviour of humans and other animals, at comparatively low concentrations. Some pharmaceuticals have synergistic effects with other pharmaceuticals, or with other common substances like grapefruit or Vitamin D. Could vulnerable humans be affected by chronic exposure to unplanned mixtures of pharmaceuticals (and other things) in water that is used for drinking, cooking, bathing etc.? And if so, should municipalities worry?

Do drugs in the water harm humans or other creatures?

Drugs get into water sources in many ways, including via excretion (human, animals), disposal of unused drugs into sewage systems or landfills, runoff from animal manure applied to fields, and from facilities that manufacture and package pharmaceuticals.1 As analytical methods improve, many drugs and their metabolites are now detectable, at very low concentrations, in wastewater and drinking water.

These drugs do have environmental effects. A study conducted in the Experimental Lakes Area of Northwestern Ontario found that adding minute concentrations of an estrogen used in many birth control pills to the lakewater led to feminization of male fathead minnows, followed by near extinction of the species from the lake.2 More recently, significant concentrations of antidepressant drugs were found in the tissue of brook trout exposed to wastewater that had gone through primary treatment; lower levels were noted in fish exposed to ozone-treated effluent.3 The same authors conducted an in vitro study that suggests that antidepressants (or other contaminants) in effluent may affect certain brain pathways in brook trout.

So far, limited evidence has not proven adverse human health effects. Ontario's Ministry of the Environment is gathering information on pharmaceuticals that will be used to create a database that includes the concentration of these agents showing up in water, and other media.4 They just published results of a 2006 survey5, which found pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in both source water and finished drinking water, but at levels they did not consider to be of concern.6 One small study screened 19 drugs and their metabolites in drinking water, without finding adverse health effects, but recommended more research on other mixtures and sensitive populations.7 As usual, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

No standards yet

Responsibility for safe drinking water is shared among the three levels of government. The federal government is responsible for drinking water in certain areas, like First Nations communities and armed forces bases, as well as for regulating food safety, such as bottled water. Health Canada recently revised its (voluntary) Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality,8 developed by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water. These incorporate health and aesthetic considerations (e.g., odour, taste) and recommend standards for many chemicals (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers), but not pharmaceuticals.

Provinces and territories enact laws and regulations for safe drinking water, including setting standards for chemicals, which must be followed by water providers, including municipalities. Provincial and territorial governments also make laws and policies concerning protection of the environment, natural resources and our watersheds. Provinces typically use the federal guidelines in their own drinking water standards. So far, we don't know of any that set standards for pharmaceuticals in drinking water.

Municipalities usually provide drinking water and wastewater services (at least in urban areas),9 and typically implement these provincial/territorial policies. They enact by-laws that prohibit or limit discharges of many chemicals into sanitary and storm sewers. As yet, pharmaceuticals are not regulated through sewer by-laws. Nor is it obvious how such a bylaw could be enforced, especially for those drugs that pass through the human body.

Are municipalities at risk of liability?

If drugs in drinking water turn out to harm human health, municipalities can expect to be sued. Whether they can mount a successful defence will depend on good monitoring of the issue, taking appropriate actions when they can, and sticking together to set reasonable standards. An insurance pool wouldn't hurt either.

Municipalities have some protections against civil lawsuit for nuisance, relating to leaks and discharges from their waterworks, based on statutory immunities adopted by each province in the late 1980s, after four Supreme Court of Canada decisions10 imposed huge liabilities on municipalities.11 However, claims for unsafe water are unlikely to be barred by these statutory immunities, which were not directed at the quality of water. When it comes to water safety, municipalities are much like anyone else who sells products intended to be consumed, and must provide water that is reasonably safe for consumption.

At a minimum, municipalities have to do everything they reasonably can to provide safe drinking water to their residents. (Statutory duties of care, such as the extremely demanding section 19 of Ontario's Safe Drinking Water Act, 200212, will make this even harder.) This would include:

  • " Pollution prevention: Do what you can to keep drugs out of the water supply. Like the City of Vancouver,13 mandate responsible disposal. Help educate consumers and health professionals not to pour surplus drugs down the drain, or put them in the garbage.14 Encourage product stewardship schemes by pharmacists and drug companies.
  • " Transparency: Monitor and report levels of potential contaminants that could have adverse health effects, including pharmaceuticals where appropriate.
  • " Keep current: Be aware when other levels of government proposal benchmarks for pharmaceuticals in water and when treatment options become available to remove them from drinking water and/or effluent. Keep your bylaws up to date.
  • " Ask senior levels of government for action: The U.S. Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies is asking senior governments to set up a list of target drugs and focus research on effects on human health and aquatic life.15 It also suggests that the FDA mandate environmental assessments as part of the drug approval process; that guidance be developed concerning antibiotics in animal feed and production; and that a national program be developed to make it easy for consumers to dispose of unused medications.

We should be doing the same.


1. Phillips PJ et al. Pharmaceutical Formulation Facilities as Sources of Opioids and Other Pharmaceuticals to Wastewater Treatment Plant Effluents. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 4910–4916. Available at

2. Kidd KA et al. Collapse of a fish population after exposure to a synthetic estrogen. PNAS 2007 May 22;104(21):8897-8901

3. Lajeunesse A et al. Distribution of antidepressants and their metabolites in brook trout exposed to municipal wastewaters before and after ozone treatment – Evidence of biological effects. Chemosphere 2011 Jan 4 [epub ahead of print]: 1-8

4. Health Canada Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Canadian Environment: Research and Policy Directions NWRI Scientific Assessment Report Series No. 8. 2007. See p. 19 At

5. 258 grab samples collected over 16 months from untreated source waters and finished drinking water

6. Kleywegt S et al. Pharmaceuticals, hormones and bisphenol A in untreated source and finished drinking water in Ontario, Canada — Occurrence and treatment efficiency. Science of the Total Environment 2011;409: 1481–1488

7. Bruce GM et al. Toxicological Relevance of Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 5619–5626

8. A summary table (December 2010) is available at

9. Environment Canada. Wastewater management. ("most wastewater systems are owned and operated by municipalities." )

10. Laurentide Motels Ltd. v. Beauport (Ville), [1989], 1 S.C.R. 705; Tock v. St. John's Metropolitan Area Board, [1989] 2 S.C.R. 1181; Just v. British Columbia, [1989] 2 S.C.R. 1228; Rothfield v. Manolakos, [1989] 2S.C.R. 1259

11. e.g., Ontario's Municipal Act, 2001 at s. 448(1)

12. which will come into effect in 2013

13. City of Vancouver. Solid waste by-law no. 8417. (At Schedule D, item 19 and Schedule E, item 25) Consolidation to December 14, 2010 at Solid waste by-law bans consumers from disposing of unused drugs at curbside

14. Fayerman P. Law banning household disposal of medications largely ignored, survey finds. Vancouver Sun January 12 2011.

15. AMWA. Policy statements: environmental priorities: Pharmaceuticals in water. October 2010. At

This article was originally written for Water Canada. A PDF is here: WC58_MayJune2011_43-44.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Dianne Saxe
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Siskinds LLP
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Siskinds LLP
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions