Trace amounts of prescription and over-the-counter drugs have been found in most waterways that have been tested in the United States, and in some drinking water sources.
Recent studies in the Pacific Northwest have revealed:
A wide array of drugs in the Columbia River (here’s the Earthfix story)
Tylenol in contaminated ground water in La Pine, Ore.
Prozac and epilepsy medication in treated wastewater at several sites near Washington’s Puget Sound.
Antibiotics in treated wastewater in Mountain Home, Idaho.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there is no evidence that these drugs, present in very dilute concentrations, pose a risk to human health. Researchers are just beginning to explore what impact drugs approved for human use could have on fish and other aquatic species.
When you take a drug, your body doesn’t metabolize all of it. Some of the drug ends up excreted from your body and flushed down the toilet.
Typical wastewater treatment — allowing solids to settle, introducing helpful micro-organisms to eat waste, filtering, and chemical disinfection — can capture some pharmaceuticals, but not others.
That means small amounts of drugs wind up in treated wastewater, which is piped back into Puget Sound, the Columbia River, and hundreds of other Northwest waterways.
Environmental agencies say flushing unused over-the-counter and prescription drugs down the toilet creates another pathway that allows medications to slip into water and soil.
And studies from Maine suggest that even throwing drugs away doesn’t keep them out of the environment; leachate from landfills, containing trace amounts of parmecuticals, may contaminate groundwater or wind up back at a wastewater treatment plant.
Here’s how the EPA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommend disposing of prescription drugs, to minimize their potential impact on fish and other aquatic critters:
If there’s no take-back location nearby:
2. Read the label of prescription drugs for disposal guidelines: a few drugs should be flushed, because they’re particularly dangerous. This information will be on the label.
3. Most drugs should be thrown away, not flushed. Remove prescription drugs from their containers and mix them with something gross: kitty litter, coffee grounds, etc. Put the mixture in a container with a lid or zip-close bag, and then the trash.
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