Sea life is swimming in a brew of sugar and spice this holiday season, according to a 2006 Seattle study that found an influx of vanilla and cinnamon in the Puget Sound in the months of November and December. The sugary surge is likely due to all those holiday cookies flowing through our bodies, down our drains, and eventually into our environment. It turns out even holiday cheer can have an environmental impact. Fortunately, vanilla and cinnamon are essentially eco-friendly. But if simple cookie ingredients are finding their way into our water, what else is following suit?

One major environmental contaminant is manufactured pharmaceuticals – things like cold medicines, antidepressants and painkillers. Humans consume these drugs and metabolize them to treat various ailments within the body. However, traces of the drug are left behind and are consequently sent down the drain in the form of bodily waste.

Doctors and pharmacists once considered flushing expired and unwanted medicines down the toilet to be a safe disposal method and even recommended it. We now understand the implications of flushing pharmaceuticals: drugs in our environment.

Life Cycle of a Pharmaceutical Drug

Imagine a bustling laboratory filled with advanced scientific equipment. It’s chugging along, producing mass amounts of powders, pills and elixirs. This is where pharmaceutical drugs are brought into the world. The manufactured drugs are marketed through medical journals and mainstream media. Pharmaceutical representatives act as liaisons between companies and consumers, connecting with health care professionals and the general public to distribute the drugs around the world.

The drug ends up in the hands of a consumer who wants it to treat cold symptoms or relieve headaches. Once the medicine enters the body in some form or another, it is delivered to the cells, tissues and organs. The medicine is gradually metabolized and what is not absorbed by the body is excreted as waste, free to flow down the drain.

The pharmaceutical-laden waste travels through sewer pipes and reaches a wastewater treatment plant, where it is cleaned before being released into the environment. Treatment plants use aeration, settlement, chlorination and digestion to get rid of potential pollutants. However, these processes do not entirely remove pharmaceuticals, and leftover contaminants are released into waterways where they can end up in various ecologically sensitive places.

Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water

Up to 5 percent of pharmaceutical elements are not removed by wastewater treatment and have been found in drinking water reservoirs. There have not been sufficient studies on associated risks of drugs in drinking water, though the Environmental Protection Agency is working to determine pharmaceutical concentrations in waterways and their consequent health hazards. Given the amount of water we drink, compounded pharmaceuticals in drinking water likely pose a threat to human health.

Contaminated Ecosystems

In addition to drinking water reservoirs, water discharged from treatment plants can reach aquatic environments like rivers, lakes and oceans. The organisms living in and around these ecosystems are sensitive to the unnatural chemicals in pharmaceuticals and experience profound effects. For example, estrogen originating from birth control pills can cause feminization of male fish, negatively effecting reproduction and reducing population size. Aquatic plants can absorb the compounds in pharmaceuticals as well. The contaminated plants are then eaten by herbivores, which are eaten by carnivores, allowing potentially harmful pharmaceuticals to move up the food chain.

Green Alternatives

Today, there’s a drug to fix just about anything, and environmentalists are worried about the effects of a growing pharmaceutical industry. However, I implore you to think about the environment before you pop a manufactured pill. There are plenty of eco-friendly options to treat an array of ailments ranging from a stuffy nose to diagnosed depression. The wonders of natural cold remedies are no secret, and the healing power of essential oils has no limit. Learn more about green birth control methods here and find eco-friendly seasonal allergy solutions here.

Of course, some health needs require something more powerful than a home remedy. Switching to a homeopathic doctor who encourages natural healing and prescribes natural medications is the best, greenest option.

And if you have expired or unwanted meds, keep an eye out for pharmaceutical take-back programs in your area where unneeded drugs will be incinerated or otherwise disposed of. If a take-back program is not an option, you can dispose of pharmaceuticals in your household trash – but first, read the FDA’s drug disposal guidelines.

Take the plunge and green your health care – for the environment!

By Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.