Dumping Your Drugs

In honor of Earth Day Word on Health wants you to consider the environmental impact of unused medicines and commit to safe disposal practices.

In the past, Americans were taught that the safest way to dispose of expired and unused drugs is to flush them down the toilet.  However, there is now ample research to suggest that this may be the least environmentally friendly method.

In 2008 The Associated Press revealed that the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans contains minute concentrations of multitudes of drugs including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones.

There’s growing concern in the scientific community, that certain drugs or combinations of drugs may harm humans over decades because water, unlike most specific foods, is consumed in sizable amounts every day.

While our bodies may shrug off a relatively big one-time dose, yet suffer from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a half century, perhaps subtly stirring allergies or nerve damage. Pregnant women, the elderly and the very ill might be more sensitive.

Recent laboratory research has found that even small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation. Furthermore, chemotherapy drugs can act as powerful poisons; hormones can hamper reproduction; medicines for depression and epilepsy can damage the brain or change behavior; antibiotics can enable germs to mutate superbugs.

In addition to the health risk for humans, these drugs have a dramatic effect on wildlife. Pharmaceuticals cause severe reproductive problems in many types of fish. The endangered razorback sucker and male fathead minnow have been found with lower sperm counts and damaged sperm, while some walleyes, male carp, and some frogs have taken on female traits. Even earthworms are affected.

Solving the problem is not so easy.  People take pills. Their bodies absorb some of the medication, but the rest of it passes through and is flushed down the toilet. The wastewater is treated before it is discharged into reservoirs, rivers or lakes but most treatments do not remove all drug residues.

People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs it and it disappears, but of course that’s not the case,” said Environmental Protection Agency scientist Christian Daughton, one of the first to draw attention to the issue of pharmaceuticals in water.

Even so, safe disposal of unused, expired and discarded medicines can help.

The  FDA recommend that most unneeded pharmaceuticals be placed in a sealed zip-lock bag with some substance like coffee grounds or kitty litter, that will make them unattractive to animals, children or anybody who might go through your trash.

Hazardous pharmaceutical waste such as anti-cancer agents should be incinerated or returned to the manufacturer through a reverse distribution program. Earth 911 lists pharmacies and other drop-off places that will safely recycle unwanted medicines.

If your company offers a reverse distribution program we’d love to hear from you.