Don’t Flush! Why Your Drug Disposal Method Matters

4A-Digital Billboard-English-1400x400By Sara Ernst

Have you ever participated in a drug take-back program?  If not, what do you typically do with leftover medications after you defeat a bacterial infection or find an old bottle of Tylenol?  Many people may flush unwanted or expired pharmaceuticals down the toilet or throw them in the trash, but those methods can actually harm our environment.

When flushed or thrown-out, these drugs can end up in our coastal ecosystems; and all the chemicals in those little pills that were once working together to make us feel better, are now dissolving in our waterways where they can negatively impact aquatic animals.

Scientists throughout EPA continue to evaluate the potential toxicity of different drugs to determine what specific effects they have on aquatic wildlife, and to develop new ways to detect if an organism has been exposed to those drugs.

I recently spoke with EPA scientists Bushra Khan and Theresa Johnston to learn about some of the specific effects they have observed in their research.

Close-up of a person's hand holding a bottle of pillsBushra talked to me about the effects that beta blockers (medication prescribed to patients with high blood pressure or chest pain) have on shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels.  She explained that when shellfish become exposed to beta blockers, it can interfere with the organism’s physiological pathways, cellular integrity, and their growth and development.

Theresa explained that drugs that are designed to disrupt our endocrine system, like oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapies, also disrupt the endocrine system of fish and other aquatic organisms. EPA scientists have found that hormones called progestins, often used in oral contraceptives, affect the number of eggs that female cunner fish produce.  They also interfere with the way hormones function within females and males.

By improperly disposing of pharmaceuticals, we further contribute to the amount of chemical exposure aquatic animals are subjected to, and potentially threaten the population sustainability of shellfish, fish, and other aquatic animals.

The best thing you can do to help lessen the problem is to utilize Drug Take-Back Programs.  These programs allow you to drop off any unwanted medications at a designated facility where the drugs will then be disposed of in a safe and environmentally-conscious manner.

April 30th is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Drug Take-Back Day.  All over the country there will be facilities accepting any unwanted or expired medications from 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM – it is the perfect opportunity to clean out your medicine cabinet while simultaneously helping to protect aquatic animals and their environment from chemical exposure!

Visit the National Take Back Initiative website to learn more and to locate a participating collection site near you.

About the Author:  Sara Ernst is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and works as the Science Communications Specialist in the Atlantic Ecology Division of EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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