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How should we dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals?

Dear EarthTalk: Pharmaceuticals were in the news again recently, how they are polluting water and raising a host of health issues because we dispose of them both unused and used through body waste elimination. What can be done?

Lucy Abbot

Macon, Ga.

Pharmaceutical drug contamination in our groundwater, rivers, lakes, estuaries and bays is a growing problem. Millions of us are flushing unused medications down the toilet and discharging them in our body waste — even though sewage treatment plants and septic systems were never designed to deal with such contaminants. Additional discharges by health-care facilities exacerbate the problem. As a result, researchers have identified traces of pharmaceutical drugs in the drinking water supplies of some 40 million Americans.

A nationwide study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 and 2000 found low levels of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids — in 80 percent of the rivers and streams sampled.

According to Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), the effects of constant, low-level exposure of pharmaceuticals on ecosystems and humans are uncertain, though “possible health concerns include hormone disruption, antibiotic resistance and synergistic effects.” And antidepressants, says CCE, can “alter the behavior and reproductive functions of fish and mollusks.”

CCE cites a recent Stony Brook University study showing that some fish species in New York’s Jamaica Bay are experiencing “feminization” — the ratio of female to male winter flounder was 10 to one in the studied area — likely a result of flushed pharmaceuticals that can act as “hormone mimics” and cause such effects. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation concurs, citing a number of other studies underscoring the impacts on aquatic life.

What irks CCE about the problem is that almost all known sources of drugs in the environment first pass through wastewater treatment plants where they could be filtered out, but these facilities are not required to be equipped with pharmaceutical filter devices.

In light of the problem, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 2007 established its first set of guidelines for how consumers should dispose of prescription drugs. First and foremost, consumers should follow any specific disposal instructions on a drug’s label or the patient information that accompanies the medication — and shouldn’t flush the drugs down the toilet.

If there are no disposal instructions, the FDA recommends finding out from your municipality if any take-back programs are in place. Also, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Days across the country at various sites a few times a year.

“If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter,” says the FDA. This will make them less appealing to children, pets or people who may intentionally go through your trash, says the agency, which adds that a final step is to put the medication into a sealed bag or other container to prevent leaks.

Dear EarthTalk: Are as many cats and dogs being euthanized these days as back in the 1970s and 1980s when indiscriminate breeding led to explosions in pet populations?

Mary H.

Knox, Tenn.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the leading nonprofit devoted to animal welfare, reports that in the 1970s American shelters euthanized between 12 and 20 million cats and dogs every year at a time when there were 67 million pets in U.S. homes.

According to statistics gleaned from the Asilomar Accords, which tracks animal shelter care and euthanasia numbers, U.S. shelters today euthanize 3 to 4 million animals, while there are more than 135 million cats and dogs in American homes.

“This enormous decline in euthanasia numbers — from around 25 percent of American dogs and cats euthanized every year to about 3 percent — represents substantial progress,” reports HSUS. “We will make still greater progress by working together to strike at the roots of animal overpopulation.”

These numbers are only estimates as there is no centralized reporting protocol for shelters. However, the Asilomar Accords method is gaining momentum as a standard for more accurately tracking animal shelter care and euthanasia numbers; it posts annual statistics for some 150 different U.S. shelters on its website.

What exactly are the roots of the problem? Foremost is irresponsible breeding — pet owners failing to get their animals spayed or neutered, leading to unwanted offspring. Some 35 percent of U.S. pet owners do not spay or neuter their pets, despite increasing public awareness about the pet overpopulation issue.

Another factor is low adoption rates: Only 20 percent of the 17 million Americans who get a new pet each year opt for a shelter pet; the vast majority buys from pet stores, breeders or through other private arrangements. And 6 to 8 million pets are given up to shelters or rescue groups every year for one reason or another, leaving these organizations with many more animals than they can place in homes.

Beyond these factors, HSUS also cites our society’s “disposal pet” ethos, whereby owners are quick to relinquish their pets for any number of reasons. The majority of shelter pets are not overflowing litters of puppies and kittens, but companion animals turned in by their owners.

“To solve this problem, we would need to effect a cultural change in which every individual fully considers all of the responsibilities and consequences of pet ownership before adopting, and then makes a lifetime commitment to their pet.”

The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy is a coalition of eleven of America’s foremost animal welfare organizations concerned with the issue of unwanted pets in the United States. The council and its partner groups, including HSUS, work to promote responsible pet ownership and reduce pet overpopulation through public education, legislation and support for sterilization programs.

As to what individuals can do, HSUS recommends spaying or neutering their dogs and cats, adopting from shelters or rescue groups and considering all the ramifications of pet ownership before deciding to take on a cat or dog in the first place.

EarthTalk is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free trial issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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