There once was a time when your doctor or pharmacist may have advised you to flush any unused prescription drugs down the toilet. Many people still do so out of habit. If you are one of those, please think twice.
Research is continuing to detect pharmaceuticals in drinking water and fish. The levels are small, but the problem is wide. A 2008 investigation by the Associated Press reported that drugs had been detected in the drinking water of 24 major U.S. metropolitan areas. In 2011, a pair of U.S. Geological Survey researchers from Sacramento reported finding pharmaceutical compounds in 2.3 percent of 1,231 samples of groundwater used for drinking water across California.
Drugs are getting into our water through various routes. They end up in animal waste because of medicines given to livestock and pets. A certain amount of prescription drugs is passed through humans, and is not fully removed by sewage treatment plants and septic tanks.
But the drugs people purposely flush down the toilet or sink contribute to the problem. The volume is potentially enormous, given that roughly 4 billion prescriptions are dispensed in the United States every year.
A lot of these drugs are not ones anyone would want to consume in their drinking water, even at low levels. In 2008, the Associated Press reported that anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety drugs had been found in part of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California. A sex hormone was detected in San Francisco's drinking water. Research suggests that some male fish are being feminized by exposure to certain prescription drugs. Prescription drugs are also being detected lower and higher in the food chain, from earthworms to predators that eat drug-tainted fish.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are a small number of medicines that in the absence of a take-back program should be disposed of immediately in the toilet because they pose such a high risk of accidental ingestion. (To learn more about these,please visit the FDA's web site at www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesfor you/consumers and click on "ensuring safe use of medicine.")
But most prescription drugs do not fall into this category. They can be safely stored and then be delivered to a take-back program. Some pharmacies offer this service.
April 27 is the "national prescription drug take-back day." Here are some ways to learn about safely disposing of prescription drugs:
Drug Enforcement Administration: www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback
Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District: