Contact: Sandra Fallon, National Environmental Services Center
Phone: (304) 293-4191 x5582; E-mail: sfallon@mail.wvu.edu

Article/References Word Count: 1,064
Article Release Date: May 2009

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Drugs in our waterways: What can community leaders do to slow the flow?
by Michelle Moore and Sandra Fallon, National Environmental Services Center

Every time you wash a product like antibacterial soap down the sink or flush an unfinished prescription down the toilet, these things end up in your community's sewage treatment plant or septic tanks. Not surprising, right? But, did you know that septic systems and sewage treatment systems are not equipped to remove medications and chemicals in personal care products from wastewater? It's true.

Flushing unused medications was a common practice recommended for years, even by health care professionals. It seemed the safest way to dispose of prescription drugs to keep them out of the wrong hands. As for cosmetic and cleaning products—lotions, sunscreens, shampoo, and laundry detergent, to name just a few—we don't think twice about what happens to them when we rinse them away. But all of these medications and products end up in our wastewater flow, and there is increasing evidence that they are polluting water bodies across the country, including our drinking water sources.

These compounds, termed PPCPs, or pharmaceuticals and personal care products (which also include nutritional supplements and veterinary medications), are showing up in streams, rivers, and groundwater, and are suspected in causing disturbing changes to fish that live in these water bodies. In some streams, female fish are outnumbering males, and researchers are finding males with female sex characteristics. Some substances, such as hormone treatments and birth control pills, are thought to be disrupting aquatic animals' hormone systems, which regulate certain cell or organ functions.

Studies indicate that chemicals from PPCPs, even at very small concentrations in the water, may be harmful to aquatic life. With more people using prescription medications everyday, the likelihood of these chemicals becoming an even greater problem is very real. No one knows for certain whether PPCPs in the water are harmful to people. Researchers are exploring whether the cumulative effects of long-term exposure can cause problems for both humans and wildlife.

What can community leaders do to help stem this flow of chemical substances into our waterways? One thing you can do is educate citizens to stop flushing medications down the toilet unless the label specifies it is safe to do so. Enclosing information in each water customer's monthly bill may be an easy and affordable way to do this. Another step is to provide residents with a way to dispose of unwanted medicines through a prescription take-back program, which can be modeled after other community programs such as recycling day or public health clinics. Take-back programs allow people to drop-off unused portions of medicines at a central location for disposal. This effort usually involves key community groups such as local government, law enforcement, regulatory agencies, pharmacies, hazardous and solid waste authorities, and concerned citizens. The drugs are collected and disposed of in compliance with appropriate environmental and legal requirements. Resources about starting prescription take-back programs are listed at the end of this article.

Until your community establishes a take-back program, an interim but less preferred option is for people to throw drugs into the trash but only after preparing them for safe disposal. Safe disposal means to remove drugs from their original containers and add them to something like glue, wet coffee grounds, or used kitty litter to make them unappealing to pets, children, or anyone who might find them. Drugs should then be placed in a watertight container, like a margarine tub, to help conceal their presence and keep them from leaking in the landfill. Liquid medications can be left in their original bottles with flour, salt, or some other dry powder added. All identifying information should be removed from containers by scrubbing off the labels or blacking them out with an indelible marker.

As for personal care products, reducing the amount we use is an important first step in keeping them out of our waters. Being conscientious when buying new items can also make a difference. We can choose products that consist of natural ingredients and are biodegradable or unscented, and avoid those that are labeled as antibacterial (such as hand and bath soaps). Until a better disposal method becomes available, unused portions should be left in their original containers and disposed of in the trash, never by emptying into the sink. To help reduce packaging that ends up in the landfill, people can purchase personal care products in bulk and refill their own containers.

Keep in mind that whether you throw PPCPs down the drain or in the trash, the contaminants will eventually get into the water. Neither disposal option is environmentally sound.

Our communities' future and wellbeing depends on clean and safe water. Whatever our water source is at home—river, lake, or groundwater—we all contribute to PPCP pollution and we can all take steps to decrease it. As with other pollutants we allow to enter our waterways, the cost of removing them through wastewater treatment—if even possible—could total millions of dollars and far exceed the cost of keeping them out in the first place. Local officials' vision and leadership at the local level—to educate the public about proper disposal and to provide prescription take-back programs—is integral in our efforts to slow the flow of these chemicals in our waterways. 

For more information about pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers basic information and answers to some frequently asked questions on its Web site at:
www.epa.gov/ppcp

The Office of National Drug Control Policy has recommendations for disposing prescription drugs:
www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/pdf/prescrip_disposal.pdf

An extensive article about drugs in drinking water researched by the Associated Press can be viewed at:
www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-03-10-drugs-tap-water_N.htm or www.nascsa.org/NEWS/RxDrugsInDrinkingWater3.08.pdf

The Safe Drinking Water Trust eBulletin, produced by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (www.rcap.org), featured an article about PPCPs in the 4/23/08 issue. It can be found at:
www.watertrust.org/feature_article.asp?nID=103

The National Environmental Services Center's (www.nesc.wvu.edu) Winter 2007 Pipeline newsletter Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products: An Overview is available online at www.nesc.wvu.edu/pdf/WW/publications/pipline/pl_wi07.pdf or by calling (304) 293-4191 for a copy.

Resources listed on EPA's Web site about prescription take-back programs
Disposal of Unwanted Medicines: A Resource for Action in Your Community by the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program at:
www.iisgcp.org/unwantedmeds/index.html

Unwanted Medicine Take-Back Programs: Case Studies by the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program at:
www.iisgcp.org/unwantedmeds/toolkit/2.0CaseStudies.pdf

List of Take Back Programs Around the Nation,
Teleosis Institute at:
www.teleosis.org/gpp-national.php

 

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About the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center (NESC).
RCAP (www.rcap.org; 800-321-7227) and its programs across the country offer water and wastewater training and assistance to small and rural communities, tribes, and water utilities. NESC (www.nesc.wvu.edu; (304) 293-4191) offers information, technical assistance via telephone, educational resources, and magazines and newsletters addressing water and wastewater issues for these same audiences.

Author Bio. Sandra Fallon is a training specialist with the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University.