drug disposal

Prescriptions for Cleaner Waterways

By Pradnya Bhandari

Teetering on the edge of a chair, my six-year-old self roots through the medicine cabinet, pushing aside plastic orange bottles for the gems hidden behind them: my gummy vitamins. My mother immediately asks me to come down, wondering if I had accidently gotten my hand on any of the medicines. Later, I see her pouring pills down the toilet and flushing them away into oblivion.

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

EPA researchers are studying pharmaceuticals in wastewater to help protect the nation’s waterways. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

I’m sure many of us have been in the same situation, left with expired, unwanted prescriptions and pouring them down the sink or flushing them away. Medications pose a threat within the household, especially homes with children, because accidental ingestion can have severe consequences. However, have you ever thought of these discarded drugs as a problem to our environment as well?

In a recently published study, Eco-directed sustainable prescribing: feasibility for reducing water contamination by drugs, EPA scientist Christian Daughton presents ways we can prevent the active ingredients of pharmaceuticals from getting into our waterways. Traditionally, approaches to addressing such water pollution have been limited to waste disposal and wastewater cleanup.

Daughton’s research examines practices that are ultimately responsible for the entry of pharmaceuticals into our waterways, practices that could be altered to reduce or prevent pollution: disposal (like my mom flushing her old medicines when I was a kid), excretion (active drug ingredients your body flushes out instead of deactivation), bathing (which releases topically applied medications and drugs excreted via sweat) or other sources.

Daughton focused his research on the metabolism (deactivation) of active pharmaceutical ingredients and how they impact the environment. He used an existing system that categorizes drugs based on water solubility and intestinal absorption. Using this data, Daughton categorized drugs according to two distinct excretion profiles: (1) drugs that are excreted largely unchanged (and therefore retain their biological activity in the environment) and (2) drugs that are extensively metabolized (transformed usually into chemicals with less activity). He then examined published data on the occurrence of each drug in municipal wastewaters to find that drugs from the second category occur with less frequency and at lower levels.

In his paper, Daughton illustrates how such excretion profiles could be used to develop a healthcare practice called “eco-directed sustainable prescribing.” Understanding how a drug is excreted could help physicians prescribe drugs at lower doses or with less potential to be excreted and reach waterways. This would help reduce pollution and lead to cleaner waters.

For more about EPA research to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals in the environment, see:

About the Author: Pradnya Bhandari is an intern for the science communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development and attends the University of Maryland.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Good Time to De-Clutter the Medicine Cabinet

By Andrea Bennett

For many of us, fall can be a good time to de-clutter things around the house, such as the garage, that closet in the guest room, and the medicine cabinet. While going through that medicine cabinet, it’s not uncommon to find expired and never-used medications sitting on a shelf, just taking up space. Flushing them down the toilet means they wind up in rivers, lakes, and streams, potentially hurting animals living in the water and people who drink it.

Fortunately, there are better and safer ways to get rid of these medicines. During National Drug Take-back Day on October 26th, you can drop off your unwanted drugs nearby, usually at a city or county building, police station, or senior center. Information on locations can be found online or by calling 1-800-882-9539.

You’ll also find that many communities have permanent drop-boxes. You can find information about the closest drug drop-box near you online.  Also, some pharmacies have drop-boxes or can provide mail-back containers for drug disposal.

One of my co-workers explains, “I read in our local paper that the police station had a drop-box, and then one got put up at the senior center, too. I had leftover drugs around the house, plus the doctor changed my prescriptions a few times, so it’s great to have safe places to drop off drugs whenever I want.”

There are even permanent drop-boxes for medication for pets and farm animals. For example, the Berks County Agricultural Center in Pennsylvania accepts veterinary medicines.

If you can’t participate in National Drug Take-back Day or you are unable to use a local drop-box, you still can safely dispose of your unwanted drugs at home by following the instructions on our fact sheet.

Remember, we all need to do our part in keeping drugs out of our water!

About the Author: Andrea Bennett works in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Drinking Water and Source Water Protection. She also participates in hazardous waste recycling days.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.