Researchers have found traces of medicines, from both people and animals, in surface water and drinking water supplies.
The medicines can get in the water supply in many ways. Old medicine is often flushed down toilets (for years we were told to do this; now we know it’s not a good idea). A second source is our own bodies: People who take medicines end up excreting (peeing or pooping out) extra medicine or medicine byproducts that are still biologically active. Two common examples are birth control pill hormones and postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy. And medicines we apply to our skin get washed off when we bathe – down the drain and into the water supply.
Like people, animals that are given medicines excrete the extra (hormones given to beef and dairy cattle and antibiotics given to animals preventively, even if they’re not sick). And we all know what goes around comes around.
We’re not exactly sure how very low levels of these medicines may affect us, but there’s reason to be seriously concerned about the possible health effects if we continue to be exposed to them over time. After all, most medicines are designed to have a positive change on how our bodies work. But, getting exposed to these medicines through drinking water is not what the doctor ordered. In 2009, nearly 4 billion prescriptions were filled in the United States. And about 3,999,999,999 of them are someone else’s besides yours.
It turns out most drinking water treatment methods don’t remove pharmaceuticals. Their primary goal is to remove any infectious waste.
It’s up to all of us to keep medicines out of the water supply. The best way is to find a “take-back” program in your area. These programs are run by local law enforcement agencies and allow people to drop off all unused medicines at a local collection point, usually a police or fire station. The medicines are then burned by a licensed medical waste incinerator. Call your local health department and ask about programs in your area.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announces national take-back days on its website. Still, many people don’t have access to these programs because they live too far away.
The SMARxT Disposal Partnership, a collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Pharmacists Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has developed steps you can take to dispose of old or unused medicines safely in household trash:
- Pour the medicine into a sealable plastic bag.
- If the medicine is solid (pill, capsule, etc.), add water to dissolve it.
- Add kitty litter, saw dust, coffee grounds, table salt, charcoal, nontoxic powdered spice (turmeric or mustard, for example), or any other materials that mix with the medicine and make it less appealing to animals and children to eat.
- Seal the plastic bag and put it in the trash.
- If the medicine comes in blister packs, wrap the packages in multiple layers of duct tape and then put in the trash.
- Remove and destroy ALL personal information from the medicine container before you recycle or throw it away.
If you’re concerned about pharmaceuticals in your water, you may want to pass your drinking water through a pitcher with a filter. Both Brita and Proctor & Gamble (maker of PUR filters) say their filter pitchers remove both E. coli and Cryptosporidium (harmful bacteria), as well as more than 96% of pharmaceutical contaminants. These companies also claim that their plastic pitchers are made without bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that has been linked to certain cancers.
You also can use an activated charcoal filter under the sink or to filter refrigerator water lines. I have a filter under my kitchen sink since most of my drinking water comes from there. I prefer to store my water in a glass pitcher or jar to keep it cold and only use the plastic filter pitcher to pass the water through once before transferring it into my glass water bottle. It’s also important to change the filter at the recommended times.
There’s only one planet and we all need to do what we can to keep it and ourselves healthy.
Have you ever participated in a medicine take-back program in your area? Has anyone found a filter-pitcher made of glass instead of plastic? Post a comment and let us know!