Sunday, January 21, 2018

Don’t Medicate Our Waters

September 1, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Perhaps your doctor changed your prescription, or you didn’t need to finish a prescription, and now there’s a half-filled bottle of pills left over. If you’re like most people, that bottle now joins a collection of other unused prescription drugs in your medicine chest, taking up space until you decide to dispose of them. But then what do you do? Should you flush them down the toilet or drop them into the sink and run some water until they dissolve? No!

Pharmaceutical contamination is a threat to our fisheries, local economies, and public health. Many people don’t realize that the drugs they discard at home are destined to end up in our drinking and marine waters.

Across the nation, scientists are finding trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs in waterways. The U.S. Geological Survey has found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in 80 percent of the waters they tested throughout the nation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 41 million Americans drink from a water source containing pharmaceutical contaminants.

Researchers have found that pharmaceutical contaminants negatively impact local fisheries. A study by Stony Brook University found that winter flounder were experiencing feminization and delays in embryonic development. Researchers suggested that estrogen-mimicking compounds found in sewage effluent were the likely cause of these impacts on the fish population.

Some of the most common pharmaceutical compounds found in our waterways are estrogen and other hormones, heart disease medication, antibiotics, antidepressants, and painkillers. While levels of pharmaceutical contamination may still be low in this country, science is demonstrating that pharmaceuticals can bio-accumulate, or build up, in the bodies of fish, wildlife, and humans. Bioaccumulation results in these contaminants impacting fish and wildlife even at levels previously considered safe.

No Drugs down the ToiletA Swedish study found that perch had six times the concentration of anti-anxiety medication in their muscle tissue than was found in the local river. Another study conducted in Colorado and Iowa found pharmaceutical compounds from antidepressants in the brains of fish downstream from wastewater treatment plants. Even in low doses, fish are affected by exposure to pharmaceutical compounds and can experience behavioral changes, altered predator-prey relationships, and decreased reproductive health. This can lead to dramatic changes in fish populations and, in turn, local ecosystems.

Contaminants can enter waterways through human waste, but contamination also results from the direct flushing of pharmaceutical drugs. For decades, government agencies recommended we just flush away all unused medication. Now these agencies recommend disposing of unused medications in ways meant to minimize or avoid waterway contamination.

Sewage systems and septic tanks are not equipped to filter pharmaceutical drugs, so stopping the flushing of unused drugs is the simplest and most effective way to keep these compounds out of our drinking water, local bays, estuaries, rivers, and oceans. Depending on your area, the police may have free pharmaceutical collection boxes set up for 24/7 disposal or you can look out for medicine take-back or mail-back programs run by pharmacies, government agencies, and concerned environmental groups.

Pharmaceutical drugs should only be dispensed by a doctor, not come from our faucet or be allowed to enter our waterways through sewage treatment plants. Protecting our drinking water and keeping our waterways safe and healthy is everyone’s responsibility.

By Adrienne Esposito

Adrienne Esposito is the Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment (

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