Emerging Contaminants

An emerging contaminant is anything in our rivers and lakes that we don’t typically monitor but could adversely impact the health of our water and the human and aquatic life that depends on it. Samples collected for this project will be analyzed for over 60 compounds including prescription drugs, antibiotics, herbicides, personal care products, caffeine and even spices like vanilla and cinnamon.

Emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, endocrine disrupting compounds, and recreational drugs often enter our rivers and lakes through treated wastewater. While we treat our wastewater for many different harmful substances and microbes, most of our water treatment facilities and techniques were not developed with these new and different compounds in mind. That means, what you decide to consume or even put down your kitchen sink will eventually make its way into Lake Michigan!



There seems to be a lot of public awareness about major contamination of waterways from industrial, commercial, or agricultural activities. But somehow “those” activities are not connected with our individual human activities. The one-year pilot program “Citizens of the Rivers and Lake Monitoring Program” demonstrated that what you do in your home is DIRECTLY linked to what happens with our water. The sucess of this pilot program has grown into the establishment of the coalition Citizen Leaders Engaged in Aquatic Research Milwaukee (CLEAR MKE) The project team members include members from Carroll University, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Urban Ecology Center and University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper volunteers sample 18 locations within the Milwaukee River Basin. The majority of locations monitored are from areas where the land use is predominantly urban, while one control station is located in Newburg. Sampling events are held three times annual. Volunteers head out on the event day to collect a water sample at designated site, water samples are then passed on to our partners at UWM’s School of Public Health. Samples are tested in Dr. Todd Miller’s lab for a laundry list of chemical compounds including from pharmaceuticals, herbicides, recreational drugs and, even, personal care products.

Emerging Contaminants in the Milwaukee River Basin

The preliminary results of this study are not surprising. Milwaukee is not different from other parts of the country. At all 14 sampling locations, multiple PPCP and other compounds have been positively identified from a target list of sixty-two (62) compounds. So far, the most commonly occurring compounds are caffeine (stimulant), ciproflaxin (antibiotic), cotinine (metabolite of nicotine), ibuprofen (NSAID), miconazole (antifungal), and triclosan (antibacterial).

What can you do?

But do change your behavior to minimize purchase and use of consumer and medicinal goods. Choose to take only the medications you need and at the prescribed dosages. Be sure to communicate with your health providers about what medicines you are taking and why. And when you have leftover medicines, be sure to take advantage of permanent drug drop off locations and the “Drug Take Back Days” organized a few times each year in almost every county of the State. www.doj.state.wi.us/dles/prescription-drug-take-back-day.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper is a proud member of the Take Back Your Meds Milwaukee Coalition! The goal of the Coalition is to reduce the risks unused pharmaceuticals pose to our drinking water and our children’s safety. About 30% of medicines are not used. Pharmaceuticals can pollute our waterways when drugs are flushed down the toilet or thrown in the trash. When prescriptions are improperly disposed of by flushing them down the toilet, they make their way through the sewer system which empties into Lake Michigan – the source of Milwaukee County’s drinking water. Recent studies by the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences showed the presence of intact pharmaceutical compounds up to three miles from sewer outfalls – meaning they are not breaking down. Drugs thrown in the trash end up in landfill leachate, which is often processed at wastewater treatment plants that cannot filter out prescription drugs. The Coalition’s goal is to have a drop box for unused medicine in every pharmacy in Milwaukee County in the next 10 years. Visit takebackyourmedsmilwaukee.org to learn more and to find your nearest drop off location!

Sign up to be a volunteer emerging contaminants monitor!

Let us know you are interested becoming a volunteer water monitor. We’ll add you to our email list to receive more information about upcoming training sessions and other opportunities to get involved. If you have additional questions, please email our Water Quality Volunteer Coordinator Katie Rademacher or call (414) 431-0907 ext 8.


Thanks to our amazing project partners!

Thanks to our funders for their generous support of this program!