How the Improper Disposal of Medications Can Harm the Environment

medicationsWhile many of the world’s citizens rely on prescription medications for a variety of conditions, few are aware of how to properly dispose of them once they expire or are no longer needed. Improperly disposing of pharmaceuticals has become a sizable problem, and the term “green pharmacy” is being used more frequently in order to spread awareness. The green pharmacy movement aims to spread awareness of improper disposal of medications and to educate citizens on how they can help.

Improper and illegal disposal of medications has been recognized as a major contributor to the global environmental crisis and is considered a hindrance to sound waste management practices. Everything from used cooking oil to old mattresses can cause significant environmental problems if they are not disposed of properly. Find out how the improper disposal of medications has increased in recent years and how it’s affecting habitats and human health, as well as tainting natural bodies of water.

A Threat to Human and Animal Health

Many falsely believe that throwing medication away is no more harmful than disposing of any other household waste, but this simply isn’t true for several reasons. Pharmaceuticals typically contain multiple manmade chemicals that can adversely impact human and animal health, even in low concentrations. Antibiotics, psychotropic drugs, and medications containing natural or synthetic hormones are some of the worst offenders.

Anti-depressant medications, in particular, pose a high risk to wildlife, and in 2006 it was discovered that remnants of anti-depressant drugs were found in the brains of fish, resulting in devastating effects on animals’ natural defense mechanisms. Specifically, fish exposed to these medications showed markedly delayed reactions when confronted by predatory species, which could result in imbalanced ecosystems. Researchers assert that medication exposure could result in the fish eventually being deemed unfit for human consumption.

Water Contamination

water testingMeasurable amounts of prescription drugs have been found in water supplies in various American cities. Reportedly, this contamination has affected over 40 million Americans, and even those who consume bottled water are at risk for unintended exposure since some brands simply repackage unfiltered tap water. Even brands that do pass water through a filtration system may not test positive for the presence of chemicals found in prescription medications. This is true even for the majority of home filtration systems available to consumers.

The Mother Nature Network wrote about a study conducted by federal scientists that indicated the water in 24 states is located dangerously close to sources of contamination, including animal feed and landfills. The same scientists also found small amounts of hormones, antibiotics, and other residual medication in the water supply. Not only is water contaminated from disposal methods such as flushing medications down the toilet, but contamination can result from medications thrown out with the household trash. The medications end up mixed with other trash and eventually seep into the soil.

Recognizing the Problem

In the United States, the standard for regulating medication safety for human consumption has been in place since 1938. This standard was put in place after it was discovered that an antibacterial medication was responsible for the deaths of 100 children. Similarly, it can be reasonably assumed that improper disposal of medication will not get the attention it deserves until there is more research on just how dangerous it is.

The green pharmacy movement is pushing to get the word out about improper medication disposal, and it is backed by researchers who have painstakingly studied medication concentrations in the environment for both human and veterinary drugs. So far, scientists have discovered over 150 different medications in the environment, and this is only in the past few years. Data suggest that the improper disposal of medications has tainted about 80 percent of the United States’ streams. In addition, about 25 percent of the nation’s groundwater has been contaminated by medication.

Proper Disposal

old medicationIn order to begin to tackle the problem of improper medication disposal, awareness needs to be raised about how significant the problem is, and citizens need to be educated on how they can help. Many community pharmacies have begun to address the issue and to instruct their patients and customers on proper disposal by directing them to a nearby medication disposal site. For those unable to find a disposal site and their local area, it’s suggested that they contact a local law enforcement agency for direction.

In terms of government, the Obama administration signed a law titled the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010. The law—an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970—asserts that consumers should actively participate in proper medication disposal. The law subsequently resulted in nationwide take-back programs. The local government also responded by collaborating with local drugstores, and many of these take-back programs were funded by pharmaceutical industry grants.

As citizens become more educated about the pitfalls of the improper disposal of medications, we should begin to see a decline in the concentration of harmful substances in the environment. Getting involved is the only real way to address such an important issue.