Drugs in the environment: The importance of properly disposing of unused medications

Scientists have found evidence that common methods of household prescription drug disposal can contaminate the environment and produce unwanted effects in wildlife.

Recent studies have shown that chemicals associated with the breakdown of prescription drugs have been found in surface water and groundwater. According to this article published on the PBS website, scientists currently believe that this contamination does not pose a threat to people, but that it does have detrimental effects on wildlife.

Even though all releases of pharmaceuticals cannot be controlled, individuals can take precautions to dispose of unused or outdated prescription drugs properly in order to reduce their overall impact on the environment.

Pharmaceuticals Enter the Environment Through Household Waste

Homeowners have been told for years that toilet flushing was the safest way to dispose of unused or outdated prescription drugs; however, this is no longer the case. When medicine is flushed down the toilet, the waste enters the sewage system and is transported by pipeline to the local public wastewater treatment facility. These facilities are not designed to treat or remove pharmaceutical chemicals.

There are two waste streams generated at public sewage treatment plants. The first is treatment plant sludge. This material is composed of dewatered solids removed from the sewage entering the plant.

Sampling studies have confirmed that pharmaceutical chemicals are common in sewage treatment plant sludge. Usually this sludge is disposed of in local landfills, but in some cases, the sludge may be reused as fertilizer on local farms.

When sludge is deposited in landfills, the movement of rainwater through the landfill can pick up chemical contaminants and transport them to underground aquifers. When used as fertilizer, the sludge is exposed to storm water runoff that can move contaminants into local streams and rivers. Either way, pharmaceuticals end up contaminating the environment.

Currently, sludge used as fertilizer is required to meet specifications for nutrient content, metals content, and bacterial content. There are no specifications for pharmaceutical contaminants.

The second waste stream from public sewage treatment plants is the release of treated water into streams or rivers. In this case, since treatment plants are not designed to remove pharmaceutical chemicals, those chemicals end up being released directly into the environment.

Treatment plants are required to meet specific requirements for the release of treated water; however, testing for pharmaceuticals is not one of those requirements.

Adverse Effects of Pharmaceutical Contamination

The effects of pharmaceuticals on wildlife were first documented by researchers in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Since then, researchers all over the world have been studying this problem.

So far, the greatest effect has been seen in fish, primarily related to contamination by estrogenic compounds associated with birth control pills and female hormones. Male fish found downstream of wastewater treatment plants have failed to develop sperm and instead develop eggs.

Other studies have shown detrimental effects on fish and frogs by chemicals associated with antidepressant medications and on aquatic insects by anticonvulsant medications.

In addition, scientists are particularly concerned about the increase of antibiotics in the environment and the creation of resistant bacterial strains. This is already a huge issue within factory farming, as these animals are commonly fed antibiotics, which in turn are consumed by those who eat meat.

Environmentally-Friendly Disposal of Household Prescription Drugs

The National Office of Drug Control Policy has published guidelines on proper disposal of pharmaceuticals. These guidelines state that medicine should not be flushed down toilets or drains unless the label contains that specific instruction. The preferred method of disposal is through community drug take-back programs or household hazardous waste collection events.

Through these programs, medicine is collected from the public and taken to regulated hazardous waste incinerators. If one of these programs is not available, medicine should be placed in the garbage, mixed with coffee grounds or kitty litter, and then placed in sealed containers or plastic bags.

Household Hazardous Waste Collection and Prescription Drug Take-Back Programs

Consumers should contact their local public recycling program office to find out about household hazardous waste collection. In some areas, collection sites are open on a regular basis, either every business day or for a couple days each week. In other areas, special collection events are held once or twice a year on weekends. The local recycling program office should be listed in the telephone book.

To locate availability of take-back programs, consumers can consult the Product Stewardship Institute. Another source for information is the National P2D2 Network Prescription Drug and Drug Disposal Program Network.

Sponsorship and development of local collection programs makes a great activist project for communities or school groups. Such groups can partner with large retail outlets or pharmacies. The Northeast Recycling Council Inc. of Vermont has published a guide for local communities called “Holding an Unwanted Medication Collection for Community Pharmacies.” This booklet is available in PDF format on the Product Stewardship Institute’s website. A community-sponsored event could even make a great Earth Day project!

It’s also important to question why so many people are disposing of drugs without having taken them. Are we as a society too reliant on pharmaceuticals? Are we being given more than we need to help us, or to help grow profits for Big Pharma?