This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

SEPTEMBER 2011: Rivers and lakes are awash in pharmaceuticals that end up in our drinking water. How could we ever have thought flushing them away was a good idea?

Safe Disposal of Old Drugs
Flushing isn't the answer anymore

A side effect of our medicine-go-lucky culture is a cabinet full of expired drugs and no easy way to dispose of them safely.

Back in the day, we just flushed them away. Then we got the bad news—widespread contamination of streams by pharmaceuticals, according to a 1999-2000 study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Next, we learned from a 2008 investigation by the Associated Press that there were drugs in the drinking water supplies of 41 million Americans.

Why do we have this problem? Our bad flushing habit is one reason, as is human excretion of drug residues. Other causes include improper drug disposal by medical facilities, agricultural practices and landfill leaching.

Water treatment plants don't usually screen or treat water for drugs, which is why drugs tossed in the toilet return to us through the tap. They also may return through the bottle, as many a brand of bottled water is simply tap water in plastic packaging. (Though bottled tap water is generally treated, it is not typically tested for pharmaceuticals, so the effectiveness of treatment is unknown.)

Humans aren't the only ones affected. Many animals get a daily dose of drugs at their local watering hole. Worse, many fish and other aquatic animals live in a pharmaceutical soup.

The levels of drugs in the water tend to be low, but exposure is long-term, and involves varied and random combinations of medications. Not much is known yet about the effects on people or wildlife. However, there is growing concern among experts about the risks because the nature of drugs is to act on biological systems.

As John Sumpter, a zoologist at Brunel University in London who studies effects of drugs on fish, told the Associated Press: "These are chemicals that are designed to have very specific effects at very low concentrations. That's what pharmaceuticals do. So when they get out to the environment, it should not be a shock to people that they have effects."

Meanwhile, the use of medications per capita is on the rise—and therefore, so are leftover drugs to be discarded. The question is how to dispose of them safely.

Pouring them down the drain is basically the same as flushing them away. No good. But dumping them in the trash without special measures isn't good either. Children or pets might get to them accidentally. Adults with a thing for prescription drugs might get to them on purpose. And even if the drugs made it safely to the landfill, they might leach out into the soil and contaminate groundwater.

Then again, you shouldn't leave them on your bathroom shelves indefinitely either, even if you did have the room. There, they might tempt even the best teens—or their friends—not to mention thieves. (Yes, people do rob houses to get prescription meds.)

The best solution is to dispose of old and expired drugs through a take-back program, such as the National Take Back Initiative, which organizes take-back days once or twice a year. The next National Take Back Day is Saturday, October 29, 2011 and there will be collection sites across America.

Some communities (not enough, sad to say) sponsor local programs of this kind, as do some pharmacies, including Walgreens and Rite Aid. You might have to pay a couple of dollars for the privilege of being a good citizen, but I expect do-gooders like you won't find that too much to ask.

Even if your pharmacy doesn't have an official program, it might take back your unused medicines if you request it. Or your doctor might. It's worth a call.

Finally, if all else fails, here is the safest method for disposing of unused medication yourself: Pour the pills and liquids in a can or heavy-duty plastic bag (but NOT something that is or looks like a food container). Mix in kitty litter, sawdust or coffee grounds to make the brew completely unpalatable. Close the container and seal it tightly with tape. Then put it in the trash as close as possible to pick-up time. Before discarding or recycling the empty medicine bottles, tear off or cross out the labels with your personal information.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

National Take Back Day, October 29th, 2011
BEST DRUG DISPOSAL METHOD. Use a drug take-back program to get rid of your old, expired or unwanted medications. There's a great opportunity coming up: National Take Back Day on Saturday, October 29th, 10am-2pm. Find a location near you. If you miss it, see if there is a local take-back program in your community. Some pharmacies also have pharmaceutical collection programs.

Cow cartoon
OTHER SOURCES OF DRUGS IN WATER. Our own bad disposal habits aren't the only problem. The factory farm practice of feeding livestock a diet of medically unnecessary antibiotics is another biggie. That's because animals (like humans) excrete drug residues. When storage lagoons holding their waste leak or overflow, the run-off carries the drugs into waterways.

Drugs also find their way into water due to improper disposal by medical facilities, human excretion, landfill leaching and manufacturing waste.


Dosed Without Prescription

Associated Press
Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water

Department of Justice
Drug Enforcement Administration

National Take Back Initiative

Sharps Compliance, Inc.
Pharmacies Participating in Sharps' Take Away Program

Health Care Without Harm
Pharmaceuticals Issue
(Information for health care industry)

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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