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By Rita Colorito
CONSUMERS WERE long told to dispose of excess
or expired medication by flushing it down the toilet
or sink, instead of dumping it in the trash where
children or pets could accidentally ingest it.
Flush that old advice down the toilet, say environmental and health experts. Numerous studies
over the last decade have shown that over-the-counter and prescription drugs are making their way into
our drinking water, polluting lakes and streams, and
affecting fish and wildlife.
Life cycle of drugs
Whenever we flush something down the sink or
toilet, it passes through a water treatment plant.
Unfortunately, most treatment plants aren’t equipped
to remove all pharmaceuticals from the water supply.
A new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
report, released in January, looked at 50 large
wastewater treatment plants
nationwide and found that
medications for high blood
pressure showed up most
frequently and in the highest
concentrations. At least 25
other drugs were found in
the water samples tested.
As of now, the levels of
drugs in our water supply
are far below anything that
could potentially cause human harm, according to
the EPA, which isn’t required to track pharmaceutical levels on yearly municipal water reports.
“We are all exposed to different cocktails of
not just prescription drugs, but personal-care
products and other things that end up down our
sinks and toilets,” says Mae Wu, an expert on
pharmaceutical water pollution for the National
Resources Defense Council. “It’s true that levels
are very low—what impact they may have acting
together is the big question mark.”
This medicine-laden water has also ended up
in fresh bodies of water. Researchers have found
that oxazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, may threaten
wild freshwater fish populations by disrupting their
natural balance. While the drug reduces anxiety
and relaxes, it makes certain fish hyper, aggressive
and antisocial, which interferes with breeding.
University of Wisconsin researchers recently
announced that pharmaceuticals are also polluting
Lake Michigan (a source of drinking water for more
than 10 million people): They
found traces of antibiotics
and an anti-diabetic drug just
two miles away from a water
the right way
A growing number of
municipalities and pharmacies offer disposal programs.
Federal law currently prohibits pharmacies from
accepting narcotics and other controlled substances.
The Costco Connection
Costco pharmacies sell a specially
designed envelope that members can
use to send back unwanted or unneeded drugs to a disposal facility, no postage required. Costco pharmacies in the
warehouse and on Costco.com can fill
most prescriptions for people and pets.
TEMPTED TO KEEP expired
drugs in your medicine cabinet? Don’t. Experts warn
prescription pain medications
can be gateway drugs to
illegal drug use. Americans
age 12 to 49 who had used
prescription pain relievers
illegally were 19 times more
likely to have started using
heroin—a growing problem
in many communities—in the
last year than others in that
age group, according to a
recent government report.
Always keep pain relievers locked away until you
can dispose of them properly.
In fact, because bathroom
medicine cabinets are
exposed to humidity and temperature changes, they are
the worst place to keep any
The right way to
toss those meds