Environment Picture

Bad medicine:

Flushing old prescription drugs sends powerful chemicals and hormones into lakes and streams, where their impacts are unknown
Flushing prescription medicine down the toilet puts it out of sight and out of mind—but doesn’t necessarily render it harmless.

Dozens of pharmaceuticals course through the nation’s waters in tiny concentrations, and scientists say it’s unclear how they impact aquatic organisms. Some have been linked to adverse ecosystem changes, including mutations in fish, birds and amphibians. For most of these compounds, no health guidelines exist for the nation’s waters, and little is known about the reactions that may happen in such complicated mixtures.

Wastewater treatment plants remove conventional pollutants such as suspended solids and biodegradable organic material, but do not remove low concentrations of synthetic pollutants such as pharmaceuticals. As a result, chemicals as common as caffeine and birth control hormones, and as powerful as cancer-fighting drugs are routinely dumped into waterways from treatment plants.

According to a 2002 United States Geological Survey, such contaminants were found in 80% of the streams sampled, with an average of seven different contaminants found in a given sample. Subsequent studies identified approximately 100 pharmaceuticals in waterways throughout Europe and the United States.

The two largest sources of pharmaceuticals entering the sewer systems are believed to be hospitals and households. This means citizens can improve our water quality by properly disposing of unused medications. Flushing drugs down the toilet is not environmentally safe. Likewise, disposing of non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste in landfills should be avoided, if possible, as they will eventually leach into the groundwater system unless rendered non-recoverable.

Some local household hazardous waste programs offer special collections for unused and expired drugs. Some pharmacies accept medications from the public. However, such programs are not widely available. If you reside in a community with such a program, it’s the best way to dispose of the drugs in your home.

If you cannot find a local disposal program, federal and state agencies have published guidelines for the proper disposal of prescription drugs.

In general, the guidelines call for individuals to:
  • Flush prescription drugs down the toilet only if the accompanying patient information specifically instructs it is safe to do so.
  • Destroy or make unusable the medication and dispose of it in the trash rather than flush it. This can include dissolving or crushing solid medications or mixing with an undesirable substance.
  • Place spoiled medications in an impermeable container or double bag in sealable plastic bags to further ensure the drugs are not accidentally spilled or consumed by children or animals.
  • Make sure all personal information on the drug label is made unreadable.
Once prepared, as above, the medications can be thrown away. For specific guidelines, visit www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/pdf/prescrip_disposal.pdf or http://www.deq.state.mi.us/documents/deq-ess-cau-rxbrochure.pdf.
-Karen Jonas, Michigan Pharmacists Association and Molly Polverento, Michigan Environmental Council
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