Ever flush the rest of your meds down the toilet to get rid of them? Think twice before you do it again; they could end up in the public water supply, where they probably won’t be filtered out.
When pharmaceutical waste—everything from antibiotics to mood stabilizers, painkillers, and sex hormones—is dispersed in local watersheds, it ends up in the rain, crops, and in our drinking water supplies. The consequences may threaten public health and the integrity of ecosystems.
Biohazardous evidence of the nation’s pharmaceutical economy is in our water. In 2008, the Associated Press (AP) tested and uncovered trace pharmaceuticals in the public drinking water supply of some 46 million Americans. Journalists found significant contamination in two dozen major metropolitan zones across the country.
The AP’s report spawned a flurry of heated public hearings and calls for government testing and full disclosure. Cities from coast to coast deployed researchers to collect samples and put public drinking water under the microscope. But the problem persists today.
Contamination of U.S. lakes, streams, and rivers with PPCPs continues to be a serious issue. Nearly 1 in 13 Americans is exposed to significant drug residues in their drinking water, according to the 2008 AP investigation. It often happens when people dispose of their medicines down the drain.
“Obviously, we’re flushing them, which is not ideal,” admitted Mary Ludlow. Ludlow is a pharmacist at White Oak Pharmacy in Spartanburg, South Carolina that serves a large flock of area nursing homes and assisted-living centers.
But the larger and more difficult issue is simply what remains once people’s bodies have metabolized most—but not all—of their prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
“People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet,” an AP writer notes.
Unfortunately, the government doesn’t currently test water for the presence of drugs. Moreover, these substances aren’t addressed in ordinary water treatment procedures. Municipal water treatment plants aren’t built for the task.
“Wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes. Then, some of the water is cleansed again at drinking water treatment plants and piped to consumers. But most treatments do not remove all drug residues,” the AP explains.
Proper Disposal Methods
Meanwhile, in clinics and hospitals across America, green-minded pharmacists are advocating for ecological health alongside their patients’ well-being. A growing number are tackling environmental pollution caused by the galaxy of “pharmaceuticals and personal care products,” or PPCPs.
With the health of the nation’s freshwater resources at stake, pharmacists are well-positioned to make a positive contribution. The training in many top pharmacy programs now teaches proper medication disposal methods, as recommended by the FDA. The most effective way for consumers to learn this critical information is in consultation with their trusted pharmacist, so these professionals are reaching out.
Pharmacists are referring patients to municipal hazardous waste collection events and even running their own community drug take-back programs. They can donate their patients’ pill leftovers to Project C.U.R.E., a humanitarian group dedicated to bringing crucial medical supplies to where they’re needed most around the world.
Pharmacists are also helping consumers pass on their unused meds to incinerators—including environmentally-friendly ones with sustainable waste-to-energy operations. Many clinicians are providing postage-paid envelopes to patients for convenient mailing to a preselected incinerator.
As officials brainstorm ways to mitigate the hydra of PPCP water pollution, pharmacists are stepping up as natural stewards of the environment. Launching eco-friendly medical waste initiatives, forward-thinking pharmacists are doing their part to help reign in the pharmaceutical contamination of our drinking water.