Proper Disposal Keeps Meds Out of the Waterways

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The U.S. EPA recently added antibiotics, sex hormones and other pharmaceuticals to its list of known water contaminants, responding to evidence that trace amounts of medicines have entered the American drinking water supply.

Pharmaceuticals pose an interesting situation in the disposal sphere because there is currently no viable recycling solution, but improper disposal can lead to environmental issues. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So far, chemical concentrations have remained low, and regulation could be years away. Yet there’s still plenty you can do to help protect the environment and your health.

Medicines enter the water supply whenever a human takes a pill, or flushes unused medicines down the toilet. Our bodies never completely absorb the medicines we ingest, so chemical compounds enter the water supply through our waste.

Millions of us depend on daily medications, from birth control pills to antibiotics. While the elimination of the medicines simply isn’t an option in most cases, you can stop flushing unused pills.

More than 250 million pounds of pills are flushed every year; in some cases, the Drug Enforcement Administration has recommended flushing pills to cut down on prescription drug abuse.

A better option is to ask your local pharmacy or municipal hazardous waste facility about “take back” programs in your area. Some private recycling firms, like Houston-based Sharps Compliance Inc., have developed programs to help smooth the take-back process.

By encouraging patients to return medicines directly to their pharmacists and healthcare providers, Sharps’ program amends “the inconvenience of ad hoc and episodic takeback programs,” said Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Claude Dance, helping to close the loop between medical professionals, patients and hazardous waste disposal efforts.

Consumers can lend their support to “green pharmacy” products, lines of pharmaceuticals that decompose easily. A favorite of both environmentalists and drug enforcement officials, these new drugs have a shorter shelf life and break down easily in water.

The only proven way to sterilize contaminated water – a technology called reverse osmosis – has been installed at some sewage treatment facilities but remains too expensive for most municipalities to afford. Yet the very existence of the technology, combined with the new attention the EPA investigation will bring to the issue, reform could be on the horizon.

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