Increasing use of pharmaceuticals – which include prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, personal care products, vitamins and veterinary drugs -- has created concern over the effects of these drugs on our environment.
Unused and expired drugs are often flushed down the toilet as a means of disposal, where they are permitted to travel freely though our septic systems and municipal waste water treatment plants into our waterways.
The effect of this chemical load on our environment is inconclusive. Limited studies on the detection of these compounds in drinking water sources have focused on the potential effects on human health. No comprehensive studies have been conducted on the effects on aquatic life or ecosystems in general.
Pharmaceuticals are compounds manufactured for use as a medical drug. Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) include a diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances such as prescription, veterinary, and over-the-counter (OTC) therapeutic drugs, fragrances, cosmetics, sun-screen agents, diagnostic agents, nutraceuticals (vitamins), biopharmaceuticals, and growth enhancing chemicals used in livestock operations, among others.
Another distinction that exists between different types of pharmaceuticals is whether the drug is “controlled” or “un-controlled”. Controlled substances are controlled by law, which in the case of the United States is by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The DEA maintains of list of controlled substances that is broken down into different “schedules” depending on the potential for misuse, abuse or dependence.
All controlled drugs and some un-controlled drugs require a prescription from a doctor to obtain. For unused or expired medications, the controlled status of the drug determines the legal avenues available for proper disposal.
Scientists have been detecting traces of pharmaceuticals in our water systems for about 30 years now, but they agree that there is no definite answer at this moment if those low concentrations have long-term impacts on human health. What is clear: no one will get full dose of antidepressant or blood pressure medication by just drinking a tap water!
What we do know is that a lot of medicines that we take are not fully metabolized and a lot is being flushed down the toilet or poured down the drain. However the wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove or even to detect those compounds. Eventually they end up in our ground water supplies and for many Alaskan’s that use septic systems, flushed pharmaceuticals are introduced directly into the environment through leaching.
While those chemical compounds have been detected in our water supplies at very low levels, usually measured in parts per billion or trillion, there is still concern especially when it comes to chronic (long term) exposure (hormones, for example may affect our body at a very low concentrations). On the top of that the chronic effects may be affecting not only humans, but also the environment including animals, especially fish. Scientists from Umea University in Sweden determined that antianxiety medications can change behavior of the fish making them more vulnerable to predation.
Types of drugs present in our waterways that have demonstrated ecotoxicological effects on aquatic ecosystems include:
- Hormones (birth control medications);
- Impotence medications;
- Analgesics (pain relievers);
- Antiepileptic medications.
More research is needed to determine long term impacts of pharmaceuticals in our environment to human health or the environment itself. While initial short term studies have not found a direct link, long term studies including research reflecting effects on vulnerable populations (pregnant women, people with health conditions or children) haven’t been conducted yet.
What we can do here and now is making sure that pharmaceuticals are disposed properly and don’t end up in our environment in the first place.
Learning the procedures for proper pharmaceutical disposal is an easy way for individuals to reduce this chemical load from entering our environment. Unlike recycling, there are laws to consider that have been devised to prevent misuse and abuse of these sometimes very powerful drugs.
1. NATIONAL TAKE BACK DAYS
The easiest method for proper disposal is by finding a receptacle specifically made for prescription drug disposal or participating in one of the National Take-Back Days, which are held twice per year in April and October. These events allow consumers to bring their unused pharmaceuticals to a central location for proper disposal. Depending on the event, acceptable items may be limited to uncontrolled substances (OTC drugs, vitamins, personal care products). Currently, only law enforcement agencies can accept controlled substances for disposal.
2. YEAR ROUND DISPOSAL
Some locations are equipped to take back pharmaceuticals year-round for proper disposal:
- Homer Police Department: there is amnesty box in front of the police station; accepts controlled and uncontrolled substances, no liquids, needles or inhalers; 4060 Heath Street, Homer, AK (907) 235 3150;
- Soldotna Police Department: open during business hours 8AM-4PM; there is a green drop box at the police station; they accept controlled and uncontrolled substances with exception of illegal substances, liquids have to be in a leak proofed container (no glass); they cannot accept needles, thermometers, anything with blood waste, no medicine from business or clinics or inhalers; 44510 Sterling Highway, Soldotna, AK (907) 262 4455;
- Soldotna Professional Pharmacy located at 299 N Binkley St in Soldotna has a drop box for year round disposal; open Mo-Fri 9AM-6:30PM, Sat 10AM-2PM; all of the medications have to be in their original packaging; they cannot accept: needles, liquids over 4oz or controlled substances;
- Providence Alaska Medical Center, Medical Arts Pharmacy at 3300 Providence Drive, Suite 101 (B Tower – Entrance #4), Anchorage; hours of operation from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays;
- Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Pharmacy: located at 4000 Ambassador Drive in Anchorage; drop bin available during their business hours; they cannot accept sharp objects in the bin (but can accept them handed over the counter)
3. AT HOME DISPOSAL
If no medicine take-back programs or DEA-authorized collectors are available in your area, and there are no specific disposal instructions on the label, such as flushing as described below, you can also dispose your unwanted medication:
- By obtaining free safe disposal bags from your local public health center or local pharmacy that deactivate certain drugs, such as opioids. All you need to do is add your medication and water according to the instructions on the bag. When you're done, the bag is safe to throw away. These bags are currently available free of charge at many State of Alaska Public Health Centers and pharmacies (Walmart, Walgreens, Target, Geneva Woods, Fred Meyer and Carrs; please contact you local pharmacy for availability).
- By following these simple steps to dispose of most medicines in the household trash:
*Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds;
*Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag;
*Throw the container in your household trash;
*Scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of your empty pill bottle or empty medicine packaging to make it unreadable, then dispose of the container.