by Jessica Levinson
We all know by now to recycle our plastic, glass and paper. To a lesser extent, people recycle paint, batteries and television sets but not many consider the implications of throwing our outdated prescriptions or over the counter medication down the toilet, drain or into the garbage. We may not think twice about throwing our drugs away, but researchers and activists have been getting the word out that it’s just as important to recycle our medications.
These drugs find their way into our wastewater treatment plants, surface water and even our drinking water. Whether we realize it or not, we end up consuming drugs through our water and food supply everyday.
This effluent from WWTPs finds its way to our water bodies and eventually into our fish population. The USGS has done extensive research on what this means for our aquatic environment. There are several ongoing and completed studies that show fish are being feminized. Besides the obvious reproduction difficulty for these organisms, we are also being exposed to hormones when we eat these fish.
According to USGS, “Intersex is one manifestation of endocrine disruption in fish. Endocrine disruption can result in adverse effects on the development of the brain and nervous system, the growth and function of the reproductive system, and the response to stressors in the environment”.
Stressors, in effect, mean reaction time to predators. If the response reflex is impaired, there is a greater chance that the predator will be able to capture its prey.
Mr. Dana W. Kolpin, a Research Hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, discussed the implications of hormones, and hormone mimickers, in our water supply. “On the human side, a lot less is understood. However, on the aquatic side, there is definite research that these compounds can have an effect.”
Mr. Kolpin went on to describe a 7-year study conducted in Canada with the U.S. EPA that spiked a lake with low level synthetic estrogen. What they determined, Mr. Kolpin said, was that “even at low levels, birth control drugs in our waters can push fish to near extinction. During USGS studies, male fish had elevated levels of female egg proteins. Externally they even started looking like females. Feminization affects the males and impacts their ability to reproduce. This can have a cascading effect to larger fish that rely on smaller fish for a food source, since it cuts their food supply.”
These changes impact humans as well. According to OurStolenFuture.org, a website dedicated to reporting and discussing research regarding hormone disrupters in our waters, there have been some severe changes to our waters. These changes have links to infertility in both humans and wildlife, cancer and ADHD in children.
It’s not just medications and OTC drugs found in our environment. A national study performed out of Baylor University, tested five rivers where effluent from WWTP was discharged. What they found was that personal care products, surfactants, antimicrobial compounds and fragrances can now be detected in fish. Some of these compounds can sometimes mimic hormones and can add to the feminization problem with the actual hormones.
But where do all of these compounds come from? Mr. Kolpin shed some light. “The treated effluent from wastewater treatment plants are one of the bigger sources along with other possible sources such as septic systems and landfills. It’s complicated,” he said. “The biggest load is from proper use, even taking medication properly produces large effects. By design, the compounds found in medications are meant to not degrade in our system. Take back programs therefore won’t solve the problem but is a start.”
WWTPs effluent travels into streams, rivers, oceans, and other bodies of water carrying with it hormones, antibiotics, cosmetics and other every day compounds. Even though WWTPs are one of the greater sources of distribution of these compounds, they are not the problem. As Mr. Kolpin suggests, “Wastewater treatment plants are not out of compliance with such contaminants. These contaminants were not part of the equation when wastewater treatment plants were constructed and currently, there are no regulations for treatment/removal of these compounds.”
And since much more research is needed to determine how these compounds interact in the environment and eventually make their way back to us, the first steps are to determine what is entering the waters, what impacts they may have and how we can prevent excesses quantities from ever reaching WWTPs.
Mr. Kolpin went on to say that there is a growing interest within the public and that USGS is not trying to sensationalize it. “We just don’t know the long-term risks to the environment and human health from low-level exposures to these compounds. We are gaining some understanding. We are not saying ‘stop taking your drugs’ or ‘stop using your drinking water.’ The public just needs to understand that these compounds are out there.”
With all that being said, there is something that we can do! Expired or unused medications do not need to enter the environment through our needless actions. But, what do we do with these pills? Dump them? Flush them? Throw them out?
Iowa has recently initiated a first of its kind program that hopefully more states will look into. The Take Away program aims at providing take back programs all across the state. For those of us, a little east of Iowa, Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection’s website provides a guide to disposing of drugs yourself, if you can’t recycle them properly (through take back programs or your local pharmacy).
They maintain that throwing them in the trash is the safest way to dispose of these substances. The trash containing your medicine will most likely be burned in incinerators at very high temperatures that will breakdown the medication. Although this is not perfect, it does keep harmful medicine from directly entering the waterways.
They once again urge you to NEVER throw any medicine down the toilet or sink. Some other helpful suggestions on the website are to buy medicine in smaller doses, especially over the counter drugs. We are all probably guilty of picking up the extra large multi-pack of Aspirin at our local Costco only to have 1 ½ bottles expire before it is ever used.
Along those lines, the best way to minimize our impact on the environment is to reduce what we use all the way around. While we can’t reduce the amount of prescription medication we take, we can limit or change the cosmetics, hair supplies and personal care products that we purchase. If you are a personal products junky, think about cutting back. A frizzy hair day every now and again is definitely worth that clean body of water.