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Practical Sustainability: Don't Flush That Medication!

This Saturday, October 22, 2016, is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. 

Held annually throughout the country, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day provides a safe way to dispose of medications that are no longer needed. 

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 safely get rid of them?  Whatever you do, don’t flush that medicine!

Why is this a topic for a sustainability blog? 

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

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

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.” 

CitizensCampaign.org 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.

According to the US EPA, improper disposal of prescription medications increases the risk that they end up in our rivers, and lakes and potentially into community drinking water supplies.  And wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to monitor or treat pharmaceutical compounds.

So, over the next few days, consider cleaning out your medicine cabinet and taking unwanted prescription medications to a drop-off point for safe disposal.  Click here to locate a collection site near you.  And help to keep our water supplies healthy for humans and aquatic life.

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