How do you dispose of unwanted and unused medication? To keep it out of the wrong hands, do you flush it, throw it in the trash or wash it down the drain? Unfortunately, these types of improper disposal can lead to water system contamination — depending on a drug’s chemical makeup. Such water pollution, in turn, threatens marine ecosystems, human health and beyond. Here is a brief look into the potential dangers of improper disposal as well as tips on discarding medication appropriately.
In the past, these methods of disposal were recommended to avoid accidental use by children or to help prevent use by opioid-seeking individuals. However, wastewater facilities and septic systems were not designed to eliminate medicinal chemicals from the water. Now, pharmaceutical-related chemicals have been found in waterways nationwide — as well as our drinking water.
In fact, pharmaceuticals permeate 40% of the nation’s water supply through aquifers deep underground. These chemicals can be traced to steroids, antibiotics, anti-depressants, painkillers and more. Tossing pills into the trash can also be hazardous; the chemicals leech from landfills into surface water. What can these chemicals do to the environment? Studies have found changes in the behavior, reproduction and growth of many species — specifically in frogs and fish — due to prescription chemical byproducts. By ingesting contaminated fish, humans and animals are also affected.
What’s more, these chemicals — along with the components produced by their deterioration — make their way into lakes and rivers after processing in wastewater treatment plants. Once introduced into these biomes, they begin to affect the nutrient content and microbes. When an ecosystem is contaminated at such a microbial level, the effects can be far-reaching. This same water is then used in the livestock farms and agricultural fields on which we depend.
While livestock farms, hospitals and nursing homes are all much larger contributors to the problem, individuals can do their part in preventing further damage. First, it’s essential to always read the information provided with the drug. A leaflet or brochure should list the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) waste code and whether the prescription in question is ignitable, corrosive, toxic or reactive. You can also check the FDA’s flush list online. All this and more can help determine if a medication is hazardous to throw away or flush.
When a drug falls under these categories, or if you are unsure, it needs to be taken to a drug take-back facility or your local controlled substance public disposal location. It’s also advised to make more conservative purchases. Consumers should not stockpile medication; it can expire and go to waste.
For further information on proper medication disposal, please see the accompanying resource.