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From the April 2009 Conservationist

A boat on the water at sunset

A New Prescription

Do not flush your unused drugs

By Scott Stoner


Pharmaceutical contamination is now emerging as a potentially significant environmental problem. Pharmaceuticals can reach our waters from a variety of sources, including the flushing of unused drugs by households and institutions, discharge from drug-manufacturing facilities, and via drugs that pass through our bodies, largely unchanged. Typical wastewater treatment is not designed to remove pharmaceuticals, and is only partially effective at doing so.

Scientists have learned that when aquatic and amphibian species are exposed to only small amounts of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (collectively know as PPCPs), there can be serious effects. The risk to aquatic life from PPCPs in water is perhaps of greater immediate concern than human health impacts. Because they spend their entire lives in the water, including sensitive developmental life stages, fish and other aquatic animals and invertebrates are exposed continuously to contaminants found in water. Species exposed to these products have shown decreased reproduction rates, delayed development, and even additional appendages in some species. Also, pharmaceuticals in the water may lead to bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. In 2002, 80% of streams sampled (139 rivers in 30 states) by the U.S. Geological Survey showed evidence of drugs, hormones, steroids and personal care products such as soaps and perfumes. While a number of human health concerns (including endocrine disruption and an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria) have been raised about the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water sources, the risks posed to humans by long-term consumption of small amounts of these substances are unknown.

A section of the DEC poster that will be displayed in pharmacies instructing residents on the proper way to dispoe of drugs
Part of a new flier that will be displayed in
pharmacies and other locations where
medications are sold.

New York's water bodies are among the state's most valuable resources, vital for people, industry, commerce and transportation. To protect this critical resource, DEC and the New York State Department of Health (DOH) are actively working to educate the public about safe drug and pharmaceutical disposal. Because of the potential risks from the disposal of pharmaceuticals "down the drain" into wastewater treatment systems, Governor Paterson recently announced a new Don't Flush Your Drugs campaign. In announcing the campaign, Governor Paterson stated, "Because of concerns about potential impacts of long-term exposure to low-level pharmaceuticals, we should take a precautionary approach to reducing discharges of drugs into the state's waterways." He called on New Yorkers to do their part by safely disposing of unused pharmaceuticals.

The initial goal of the campaign is to reduce the intentional disposal of drugs in wastewater by flushing or pouring into drains. DEC has launched a website
(www.dontflushyourdrugs.net) to educate the public about the environmental problems created by flushing pharmaceuticals, and to provide proper disposal methods for prescription and over-the-counter medications (see sidebar below).

The flushing of unused medications from institutions such as hospitals, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes is another source of drugs to the environment. To address this issue, an interagency work group is developing new guidance for institutions to promote environmentally sound practices for the disposal of unused pharmaceuticals.

DEC is encouraged by a number of regional, voluntary "take-back" programs for unused pharmaceuticals. To date there have been six such programs in the state, two sponsored by pharmacy chains and four by counties. Several other counties are in the process of planning pharmaceutical collection events for their residents. In central New York, DEC is working with local governments and other stakeholders to further expand pharmaceutical collection opportunities. To demonstrate the need for, and feasibility of pharmaceutical collection programs, DEC is also seeking federal funding for additional pilot projects such as "mail-back" programs.

Other options for managing pharmaceutical waste include studying successful European and Canadian practices of product stewardship developed in conjunction with drug manufacturers. These programs require that manufacturers develop convenient collection, or "take-back" programs for unused pharmaceuticals. For example, in British Columbia, pharmaceutical companies finance a system in which 98% of the pharmacies take back customers' unused drugs.

DEC's long-term strategy includes working with pharmaceutical industries to clean up production sites and reformulating drugs so that they will break down more readily in the environment. DEC will also promote efforts to improve water treatment technologies that might remove these and other emerging contaminants at the "end-of-pipe."

We need to act now to protect our waterways, before pharmaceuticals pose a significant health threat. It's clear that a precautionary approach aimed at eliminating the intentional discharges of pharmaceuticals is a reasonable and prudent first step.

Scott Stoner is chief of the Standards and Analytical Support section in DEC's Water Assessment and Management bureau.

Photo: Ken Allen