Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don’t Medicate Our Waters

September 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 


Perhaps your doctor changed your prescription, or you didn’t need to finish a prescription, and now there’s a half-filled bottle of pills left over. If you’re like most people, that bottle now joins a collection of other unused prescription drugs in your medicine chest, taking up space until you decide to dispose of them.  But then what do you do? Should you flush them down the toilet or drop them into the sink and run some water until they dissolve?  No!

BWGB 2Pharmaceutical contamination is a growing threat to our fisheries, local economies, and public health. Many people don’t realize that the drugs they discard down their home drains are destined to end up in our drinking water and our marine waters. Across the nation, scientists are finding trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs in waterways.   The U.S. Geological Survey has found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in 80 percent of the waters they tested throughout the nation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 41 million Americans drink from a water source containing pharmaceutical contaminants.

BWGB 2aAlthough this is an emerging issue, researchers have found that pharmaceutical contaminants are already negatively impacting local fisheries.  In 2002, a study by Stony Brook University found that winter flounder in Jamaica Bay were experiencing feminization.  The study found a 10 to 1 ratio of female to male flounder, and discovered that flounder exposed to Jamaica Bay sediment exhibited delays in embryonic development.  Researchers suggested that estrogen-mimicking compounds found in sewage effluent were the likely cause of these impacts on the fish population.

Some of the most common pharmaceutical compounds found in our waterways are estrogen (and other hormones), along with heart disease medication, antibiotics, antidepressants, and pain-killers.  While levels of pharmaceutical contamination are still low, science is demonstrating that pharmaceuticals can bio-accumulate, or build up, in the bodies of fish, wildlife, and humans.  Bio accumulation results in these contaminates impacting fish and wildlife even at levels previously considered safe.

A Swedish study found that perch had six times the concentration of anti-anxiety medication in their muscle tissue than was found in the local river.  Another study conducted in Colorado and Iowa found pharmaceutical compounds from antidepressants in the brains of fish downstream from waste water treatment plants.  Even in low doses, fish are affected by exposure to pharmaceutical compounds and can experience behavioral changes, altered predator-prey relationships, and decreased reproductive health.  This can lead to dramatic changes in fish populations and in turn, local ecosystems.

Contaminants can enter waterways through human waste, but contamination also results from the direct flushing of pharmaceutical drugs.   For decades, government agencies recommended we just flush away all unused medication.   Now these agencies recommend incinerating drugs, but disposing of unused medications down the drain remains standard practice for some residents and health institutions.

BWGB 3The good news is that there are ways to help curb the problem while it is still manageable.  Sewage systems and septic tanks are not equipped to filter pharmaceutical drugs, so stopping the flushing of unused drugs is the simplest and most effective way to keep these compounds out of our drinking water, local bays, estuaries, rivers, and oceans.  Many police precincts have free pharmaceutical collection boxes set up for 24/7 disposal, Stop and Shop pharmacies in Nassau County have free mail-in envelopes for unwanted pills, and there are regular pharmaceutical collection days hosted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at multiple locations.

Pharmaceutical drugs, even trace amounts, should only be dispensed by a doctor, not come from our faucet or be allowed to enter our waterways through sewage treatment plants.  Protecting our drinking water and keeping our bays safe and healthy is everyone’s responsibility — for more information, please visit www.citizenscampaign.org. Together we can make a difference towards reclaiming clean water.

By Adrienne Esposito

Adrienne Esposito is the Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.  

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