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Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products Communications Toolkit

toolkitProject: 09-07 (Phase 2)
Type: Communications Tool
Year Released: 2011

Program: Principal
Funding Partners: Bureau of Reclamation, Water Research Foundation, City of Oxnard, Redwood City, City of Santa Clara Valley Water District, Inland Empire Utilities Agency, South Bay Water Recycling
Total Investment: $234,844.50 (Cash)

Principal Investigators: Laura Kennedy, Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, Jean Debroux, PhD, Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, and Mark Millan, Data Instincts, Public Outreach Consultants


As water becomes a scarcer and more precious resource, many communities are making use of recycled water to address growing water demands and limited supplies. One of the hurdles to gaining public acceptance of recycled water projects is perceived human health risks.

Among the perceived risks is concern about the presence of trace concentrations of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) found in recycled water. But findings from a recent study (WRF-09-07) indicate that, depending on the chemical and the exposure situation, it could take anywhere from a few years to many millions of years of exposure to nonpotable recycled water to reach the same exposure to PPCPs that we get in a single day through routine activities.

Goals and Objectives

The project provides quantitative human health risk assessment results for exposure to a small group of selected pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in recycled water through a representative set of non-potable use cases; and develops a message delivery effort to present the results to the general public.

Research Approach

This study combined key findings of recent landmark projects on the occurrence and toxicological relevance of PPCPs with quantified exposures of typical non-potable recycled water applications to assess risks specifically associated with PPCPs in recycled water.

In the risk assessment, acceptable concentrations of PPCPs in recycled water for the non-potable use scenarios were compared to published measured concentrations of the PPCPs in secondary and tertiary treated wastewater effluent. Results of the comparison showed that measured concentrations are below the calculated acceptable concentrations. Therefore, exposure to PPCPs in recycled water through non-potable uses is unlikely to result in adverse health effects.

In addition, this study completed a series of comparative risk calculations and exposure comparisons to facilitate the communication of the risk results. In the first comparison, exposures to PPCPs in recycled water were compared to potential exposure to the same PPCPs from common activities, such as hand-washing or taking an aspirin for a headache. This comparison showed that it would take between 1.5 and 190 million years of exposure to recycled water to equal a single exposure to the same PPCPs from typical day-to-day uses. A second comparison reviewed exposures to PPCPs in drinking water relative to recycled water. This comparison showed that risks from PPCPs in recycled water are similar to the risks from PPCPs in drinking water. Finally, relative risks from PPCPs in recycled water due to non-potable uses were compared to relative risks to other compounds in different media, in order to illustrate that risks from environmental chemical exposure are ubiquitous, and to demonstrate that risks from recycled water are low relative to risks from other exposures.

The message delivery effort has made the findings about risks from non-potable recycled water exposures easily understandable and meaningful for communications with utility management, project stakeholders and the general public. The message delivery effort resulted in production of the following tools: 4-page background paper, a fact sheet for each exposure scenario, a 12-minute video summarizing the study, message points, and answers to frequently asked questions. The tools use language and graphical references that the general public can more easily comprehend than scientific jargon, enabling water reuse agencies and municipalities to better respond to public concerns and/or opposition to recycled water projects due to perceived health risks.

Findings and Conclusions

For each of four scenarios in which people could come into contact with recycled water used for irrigation — children on a playground, golfers, and landscape and agricultural workers — the Risk Assessment Study estimated health risks from exposures to PPCPs in recycled water and compared those exposures to conventional uses of the same chemicals.

The Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Product Communications Toolkit Includes:

  • A four page illustrated color brochure titled Recycled Water: How Safe is It? which puts the risk of recycled water into perspective for the general public
  • Four double-sided flyers that explain estimated health risks from pharmaceuticals and personal care products for children on the playground, golfers, and landscape and agricultural workers
  • A 12 minute DVD, which synthesizes the results of the Risk Assessment Study. This beautifully shot video includes interviews with the scientists behind the research.


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