To Flush or Not to Flush: How Pharmaceuticals are Contaminating Our Drinking Water

by Reena Siegel-Richman on March 28, 2014



Every year hundreds and thousands of expired and unused pharmaceuticals lie around people’s homes untouched. Most of the time these unused drugs are disposed of in one of two ways: flushed down the toilet or thrown away in the trash. Most people don’t know the safety hazards associated with disposal of unused drugs. Some medicines, if taken by someone other than for whom they prescribed, can be especially harmful and in some cases, fatal with just one does.


Researchers have identified traces of pharmaceuticals in drinking water for that supplies some 40 million Americans. A variety of pharmaceuticals have been found in our water systems including, antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones. Yet, the most common are over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. A recent study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency found more than half of their samples taken from water treatment plants nationwide tested positive for at least 25 different drugs.


The long-term health consequences from persistent exposure are not yet fully understood, but recent studies have found effects on human cells and wildlife. The biggest problem seems to be that no one knows which compounds need to be removed, or how to remove them for the water. Currently, there is no federal or state regulation requiring that drinking water or wastewater be monitored for pharmaceutical compounds.


In addition to affecting human health, pharmaceuticals are having a detrimental affect on fish, frog, and lobsters. It has been found that exposure to hormones in contaminated water have caused some fish species to experience “feminization,” in which the male fish are developing eggs.


While contamination of water by disposed pharmaceuticals can be prevented, pharmaceuticals entering our water system through human urination cannot. As our bodies metabolize medicines, waste is removed and excreted through urination. We cannot prevent our bodies from metabolizing and releasing waste product.


Due to the heightened concern for human and environmental health, in 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established the first set of guidelines how to consumers should dispose of their prescription drugs. Currently, the disposal options that exist are: medicine take-back programs, disposal in household trash, and disposal by flushing down a toilet or sink.  Medicine take back programs are the best way to dispose of unwanted, expired or unused pharmaceuticals. These programs allow the public to bring medicines to a central location for proper disposal.


If this option is not available the next best option is to throw medicines in household trash, but only after certain precautionary steps are taken. The FDA suggests that before throwing medicine away in the trash it is removed from its original container and mixed with an undesirable substance, like coffee grounds or kitty litter. Additionally, the mixture should be placed in a sealable bag or other container to prevent the drug from leaking or breaking out of garbage bags. Never should pharmaceuticals be flushed down a toilet or sink unless otherwise indicated on the prescription label.


Medicines that are no longer needed must be disposed of properly, so they do not cause harm through contamination of water sources. Contamination from pharmaceuticals is not confined to the United States. Pharmaceuticals have been found in water source all around the world, including Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe.  With advances in technology that have allowed the ability to detect these chemicals, the effects they have on humans and the environment can be determined. I also believe that these technological advances are the solution to the problem. A new form of water filtration needs to be devised that removes the pharmaceuticals that contaminate our water supply.











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