Protect aquatic life: Don't flush unused medications, expert advises

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Unused prescription medications should not be flushed or washed down the drain because the residue from pharmaceuticals adversely affects fish and other aquatic species, according to a Penn State Extension water specialist.

"Some of these chemicals interfere with or mimic natural hormones and disrupt reproduction, development and behavior of fish and other organisms," said Dana Rizzo, a water resources extension educator based in Westmoreland County.

Rizzo refers to pharmaceutical and personal-care products. They include over-the-counter remedies, prescription medicines, nutritional supplements, veterinary drugs and products used to adorn and clean, such as fragrances, lotions, antibacterial soaps, detergents, sunscreens and cosmetics.

These products find their way into the environment in human and domestic animal excretions and by flushing unneeded or expired medications down a toilet or drain. Considering that four out of five people leave a doctor's office with a prescription, one can imagine how much of that medication potentially is being thrown away improperly.

Technology has not been able to detect these chemicals in water until recently because the concentrations were below detectable limits, Rizzo noted. Even though some chemicals have been detected, no one yet has demonstrated any impact on humans.

"Even though the concentrations seem very small and insignificant, an extremely large number of molecules of these products are present in the water we drink," she said. "The effect on fish has brought about reasonable concern."

However, keeping these chemicals from our water supplies is almost impossible, Rizzo pointed out. Technology does not exist yet to completely remove them. Currently, the only way to reduce the volume of these products is to decrease our use of the products.

Because reducing the amount of drugs being excreted by humans would be difficult, disposing of unused medications properly is one of the only options available for reducing their presence in aquatic habitats. And, Rizzo said, the only safe disposal method is high-temperature incineration at sites usually under the control of law enforcement agencies.

"So, instead of flushing those unwanted medications, you should dispose of unused prescription drugs through increasingly common pharmaceutical take-back programs," Rizzo suggested.

She said if consumers have a large supply of medications and there are no take-back events scheduled locally, they should follow these steps for disposal:

-- Remove unused, unneeded or expired prescription drugs from their original containers.

-- Mix the drugs with an undesirable substance, such as kitty litter.

-- Place the drugs in sturdy, opaque, nondescript containers and throw these containers in the trash.

So, should you worry about drinking water?

"To date, scientists have not found any evidence of adverse effects on human health associated with these substances in water supplies," she said. "According to the Environmental Protection Agency, research will continue on this subject. But until any major breakthroughs happen, do your part and make sure you are not flushing your leftover medications."

To learn more, read the Penn State Extension fact sheet, "Pharmaceutical Disposal and Water Quality."

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Last Updated October 23, 2013