Diverting Pharmaceuticals from Water Systems

Growing Blue

Providing a Safe and Convenient Alternative for the Disposal of Pharmaceuticals

The federal government does not require testing for drugs in water supplies, yet over the last 10 years, the percentage of Americans who took at least one prescription drug in the past month increased from 44% to 48%. The most commonly used types of pharmaceuticals include: asthma medicines for children, central nervous system stimulants for adolescents, antidepressants for middle-aged adults, and cholesterol lowering drugs for older Americans; this does not include hormones, caffeine, nicotine, personal care products such as cosmetics and fragrances,  and other chemical compounds that form part of one’s everyday life. While treatment facilities are designed to target and minimize the prevalence of nitrates, phosphates and organic carbon, when humans take medications, or use and dispose of certain products these chemical contaminants end up in a city’s wastewater.

In California’s San Mateo County, a Pharmaceutical Disposal Program was developed which provides disposal sites at law enforcement agencies. This serves as a convenient, environmentally sound way for citizens to dispose of human and veterinary pharmaceuticals. This is an improvement over the advocated method of flushing unused pharmaceuticals down the toilet and into the water system. Within its first two years, the County safely disposed of 14,500 pounds of pharmaceuticals and has received numerous awards. The County is promoting the mission to produce positive and measurable results before pharmaceuticals enter and contaminate the water.

There has been rising concern over the potential impacts of pharmaceuticals released into the environment through wastewater systems. Small concentrations of drugs and medications are already found in waterways nationwide, the result of improperly disposing pills and medicinal liquids, but also by human excretion. While there is more evidence on the risks for aquatic life, research shows there may be reason for concern for infants in the womb. San Mateo County’s Pharmaceutical Disposal Program provides a preemptive alternative they hope to extend state-wide and nation-wide.

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