EPA: Drugs in Drinking Water Posing Unknown Risks

Recent studies show that the number of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in our waterways is growing. As of 2007, EPA says, more than 100 individual PPCPs, in addition to antibiotics and steroids, have been identified in environmental samples and drinking water. Disposal of unwanted medications to sewers and trash is one way that these materials reach the environment. Also, drugs that we take are not entirely absorbed by our bodies, and are excreted and passed into wastewater and surface water, studies show.

Since sewage and drinking water treatment systems are not equipped to remove these materials, they can end up in the water that we consume, EPA says, adding that the risks posed to aquatic organisms and to humans are unknown. While the major concerns have been the resistance to antibiotics and disruption of aquatic endocrine systems, many PPCPs have unknown consequences. PPCPs include prescription and over-the counter therapeutic drugs, veterinary drugs, fragrances, cosmetics, sun-screen products, diagnostic agents, and nutraceuticals such as vitamins. People contribute such substances to the environment when medication residues pass out of the body and into sewer lines or when externally-applied drugs and personal care products they use wash down the shower drain. The materials also can reach the environment when people place unused or expired medications in the trash.

EPA says that proper disposal of drugs is a straightforward way for individuals to prevent pollution. To dispose of prescription drugs properly and help keep them out of our waterways, the agency suggests taking unused, unneeded, or expired prescription drugs out of their original containers and throw them in the trash, or mixing prescription drugs with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter, and putting them in impermeable, non-descript containers, such as empty cans or sealable bags, to further ensure the drugs are not diverted. EPA further advises flushing prescription drugs down the toilet only if the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs doing so. Some communities have pharmaceutical take-back programs or community solid-waste programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Where these exist, they are a good way to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals.

To contact your state and local waste management authorities with questions about discarding unused pharmaceuticals in your area, EPA has set up a map with links to all state sites having pages related to solid and hazardous waste. That map is located at www.epa.gov/epaoswer/osw/stateweb.htm.

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