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.
What Are Pharmaceuticals?
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.
Threats to Water and Human Health
Studies to determine the short term effects of trace pharmaceuticals in our water have not yielded conclusive results, and no long term studies have been widely commissioned. The studies so far focus on human health from pharmaceuticals in drinking water sources, and not the effects to the food we take out of the oceans and rivers nor the environment and ecosystem as a whole. In short, there are many unknowns.
Pharmaceuticals enter our waterways several ways including after they are passed through our bodies, runoff from agricultural areas, and from direct introduction into our environment by flushing or pouring down the drain. Click here for an infographic showing how pharmaceuticals enter the environment.
While these chemical compounds have been detected in our nation’s water supplies at very low levels, usually measured in parts per billion or trillion, there is still concern. Hormones, for example, work at very low concentrations in the human body. Types of drugs that have demonstrated ecotoxicological effects on aquatic ecosystems include:
- Hormones (birth control pills)
- Analgesics (ibuprofen)
- Impotence drugs (Viagra)
Currently, pharmaceuticals and personal care products are not regulated by the EPA, and municipal drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are not required to test for or remove these chemical compounds. Due to the varied nature of these chemicals, most water treatment plants are not set up to detect or to treat pharmaceuticals in municipal supplies. For the many Alaskan’s that use septic systems, flushed pharmaceuticals are introduced directly into the environment through leaching and introduction to ground water.
More research is needed to establish conclusive evidence of harm to human health or the environment from improperly disposed pharmaceuticals. While initial studies have not found a direct link between pharmaceuticals in the environment and human health, long term studies and studies on the effects of vulnerable populations (pregnant women, people with allergies, children, etc.) have not been conducted.
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.
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 un-controlled substances (OTC drugs, vitamins, personal care products). Currently, only law enforcement agencies can accept controlled substances for disposal.
Some locations are equipped to take back pharmaceuticals year-round for proper disposal.
|Homer Police Department||X||X||Permanent, Year-Round|
|Soldotna Police Department||X||X||Permanent, Year-Round|
|Anchorage Police Department||X||X||Permanent, Year-Round|
|Fred Meyer Pharmacies||X||Mailers available for purchase.|
|Providence Health Park Pharmacy||X|
|Providence Medical Arts Pharmacy||X|
|Soldotna Professional Pharmacy||X|
- Homer: Homer Police Department, 4060 Heath Street, Homer, AK 907-235-3150
- Soldotna Police Department, 44510 Sterling Highway, Soldotna, AK 907-262-4455
- Anchorage Police Department, 4501 Elmore Road, Anchorage, AK 99507, 907-786-8500
Current Laws and Regulations
There are valid concerns regarding take-back programs run by non-law enforcement agencies, including security and diversion control, but also a desire to make proper disposal more accessible and convenient to all consumers.
In 2010, the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act was signed into law, with the intention to make proper disposal of controlled substances possible. In the fall of 2014, DEA published its final rule on the matter.
The new regulations significantly expand the options for disposing of unused medicines, including allowing Schedule II-V drugs to be collected and disposed of via secure receptacles, mail back programs, and take-back events.