Pharmaceuticals have become a part of daily life for many members of society, and most households will have fully stocked medicine cabinets with their favorite painkillers or prescription drugs. But what happens to all the medication that’s unused or expired? Often they get thrown in the garbage or flushed down the toilet. Old and unused medications can seem like a waste product of lower concern than say plastic, but they have the capacity to pollute many of the world’s waterways. One of the most daunting environmental issues the world has to deal with is pharmaceutical waste.
Despite how many drug-take-back programs exist, people are still throwing medication in the garbage or flushing them down the toilet. The improper disposal of pharmaceuticals doesn’t only happen in households, but also hospitals and nursing homes. The problem is that chemicals from prescription and over-the-counter drugs get leached into the environment. Flushing medication down the toilet has also been found to negatively affect waterways and aquatic life.
Unfortunately, sewage and water treatment plants do not have the capacity to remove these harmful chemicals from the water. Sometimes sewage treatment can remove some of the pharmaceuticals that end up at the plant, but this will often result in more sludge. Sludge from these facilities are sometimes used as fertilizer, which means that the pharmaceutical chemicals still find a way to leach into the soil.
There are many studies that have tried to quantify the medication that ends up in lakes, streams and rivers. A study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey drew water samples from 139 streams in 30 U.S. states and found that 80% of the samples had measurable amounts of one or more medications. In the water samples, researchers found painkillers, antibiotics, antidepressants, blood thinners, hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), and heart medications (ACE inhibitors, calcium-channel blockers, digoxin).
With the rise of pharmaceutical pollutants, various studies have been conducted to test the effects of these chemicals on aquatic life. Researchers have found that increased estrogen levels in the water have a ‘feminizing effect’ on male fish and have changed the female-to-male ratios. In the most polluted parts of the Potomac River, there are fish who have both female and male sex characteristics. The estrogen in waterways often come from birth control pills and postmenopausal hormone treatments. Other studies that looked at fish downstream from wastewater treatment plants found traces of popular antidepressants in their brain tissue.
Apart from flushing medication down the toilet, chemicals also end up in waterways from drug manufacturing facilities. According to a Harvard Health Letter, “a U.S. Geological Survey study found contamination levels downstream from two drug manufacturing plants in New York State that were 10 to 1,000 times higher than those at comparable facilities around the country.”
A recent study published in the journal Infection, found that water sources in and around the drug production district of Hyderabad, India have very high levels of antifungal and antibiotic residue. Researchers also found that high levels of bacteria and fungi have built up resistance to these chemicals that are supposed to kill them. When antimicrobial drugs become ineffective, they can become ‘superbugs’ and raise public health concerns. Hyderabad’s Patancheru-Bollaram Industrial zone is home to over 30 drug manufacturing companies that supply nearly all of the world’s major drug companies. Scientists from the University of Leipzig who conducted the study discovered that each day the factories produce thousands of tons of pharmaceutical waste.
Pharmaceuticals end up in the natural environment at all stages of its life cycle: during the manufacturing process, while being used by humans (e.g. in our urine), and when they are disposed of. At the consumer level, there are some ways that we can be more responsible and reduce the amount of pharmaceutical pollution ends up in our local streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.
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