Medicinal drugs were found to be ubiquitous in the river Elbe, its tributary the river Saale and in other tributaries at their points of entry into the Elbe. The distribution of concentration peaks along the investigated river stretches provides an indication that they are mainly due to the emission of treated waste water from municipal sewage treatment works. This leads to the conclusion that medicinal substances can be regarded as faecal indicators for water pollution caused by human activity. The main substances found in the Elbe in 1998 were diclofenac, ibuprofen and carbamazepine as well as various antibiotics and lipid regulators in the concentration range of <20-140 ng/l. The more thorough investigations carried out in 1999 and 2000 show that in addition to the drugs (phenazone, isopropyl-phenazone and paracetamol) metabolite concentrations contributed significantly to the total concentration of pharmaceuticals in the Elbe. The metamizole metabolites N-acetyl-4-aminoantipyrine (AAA) and N-formyl-4-aminoantipyrine (FAA) were found in concentrations from <20 to 939 ng/l. A multivariate statistical analysis revealed a high correlation in respect of the distribution of persistent substances. The metoprolol distribution throughout the Saale demonstrated that the tributaries cause either an increase (Weisse Elster, Unstrut, Ilm) or a reduction (Wipper, Bode) in the concentration, depending on the respective load of waste water. Wide scale sampling in Saxony during 2002 showed the ubiquitous occurrence of carbamazepine in surface waters. The ecotoxicological effects of this contamination cannot be assessed at present. This is due to the fact that no legal framework in respect of these medicinal drugs for human consumption has been established and therefore little research and no risk assessment has been carried out. Therefore it is urgently necessary to include at least the quantitatively most significant substances in the new assessment concept of the EC White Paper.