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Practical Sustainability: Don’t Flush that Medicine!

In honor of the Ninth National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which will take place tomorrow, this month’s Practical Sustainability column addresses the environmental impact of pharmaceutical products in our waste stream, and what you can do about unwanted prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

Discarding unused drugs and personal care products down the toilet is a common but poor disposal method. Source:

Discarding unused drugs and personal care products down the toilet is a common but poor disposal method.

When you threw out your back last year, perhaps the doctor gave you a prescription for a stronger pain reliever.  Or maybe you found some bottles of unused medications after a relative passed away.  Or your kids have grown up and you don’t need pediatric cough syrup anymore.  There are many reasons why we accumulate unneeded and unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs.  You don’t want them lying around your home, but how do you get rid of them?  Whatever you do, don’t flush that medicine!

According to the University of Illinois, “Septic systems and most municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove pharmaceutical chemicals from the water.  Different treatment techniques are successful at removing some of the chemicals, but current technology does not completely remove all pharmaceutical chemicals from treated water.  The presence of pharmaceutical chemicals in sewage sludge is also of concern, as it is often used on agricultural land as a fertilizer.” reports that 41 million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of pharmaceutical products in their drinking water.  According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), “Chemicals are being discovered in water that previously had not been detected or are being detected at levels that may be significantly different than expected.”  USEPA publishes a detailed diagram of how Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) can enter our water supplies.

Scientific research is underway to determine the long term effects of pharmaceutical products in our waterways.  More research needs to be done, and we need more facts about the long term human and environmental impacts of pharmaceutical disposal.  But even before all of the facts are gathered and analyzed, there are things we can do to reduce our impact when we dispose of medications.

Tomorrow, September 27, 2014 is the Ninth Annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.  So clean out your medicine cabinet today, use the DEA’s online tool to find a collection site near you, and then while you’re out and about tomorrow, stop by one of the sites where you can dispose of the medications safely and know that you’re doing your part to keep our agricultural lands and waterways free of medication contaminants.

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