Pharmaceutical Pollution

Pharmaceutical Pollution: Problems and Solutions

Living within this ever shrinking global community called planet Earth, we are rapidly and collectively learning about the impact our ‘activities of daily living’ have on our local, regional and global environments.  Recent focus on the health care industry has surfaced concern for the contamination of our streams and waterways with pharmaceutical medications.  Bottom line: Medications are a pollution problem, and the rate that medications are entering the environment is faster than the rate they are cleared from the environment.

Testing for 95 different medications, a recent U.S. Geological study reported that 80% of American streams studied were contaminated.  One problem with having medications in our streams and waterways is that they do not go away.  Many medications have active properties that persist in the environment and affect other living organisms.  Although difficult to study the cumulative and chronic effects of these substances at very low concentrations, there is a growing body of evidence relating pharmaceutical pollution to reproductive and developmental changes in hundreds of aquatic animals and plants.

What’s the scope of the problem? On a monthly basis 135 million Americans consume medications for acute and chronic illnesses and annually an estimated one billion dollars worth of pharmaceuticals get tossed into the garbage or flushed down the toilet.  Municipal sewage treatment and individual septic systems are not technologically equipped at this time to clear these substances.  The drugs most commonly found in our waterways include aspirin, high cholesterol and hypertension medications, hormones, antibiotics and caffeine.

And what about natural medicines – nutritional supplements and herbal remedies?  Are they any safer?  We don’t know.  Generally these are also highly concentrated substances used to affect biologic processes.  With a range of manufacturing and quality assurance practices originating from countries across the globe there is the potential of exposing local organisms and environments to concentrated non-local substances and contaminates from unethical manufacturing practices.

A not so easy solution to pharmaceutical pollution is to make diet, exercise, substance and stress reduction lifestyle choices to support optimum health and decrease the need for pharmaceutical use.

The easiest solution to pharmaceutical pollution is to dispose of medication properly.  In the Puget Sound area that has become easier to do.  In 2006 – 2008, a two year Washington State pilot ‘Medicine Take Back Program’ was the first of its kind in the United States.  Participating pharmacies in the Puget Sound area accepted unwanted medications in their original containers for disposal via high temperature hazardous waste incinerators.  Although the pilot study is over, temporary take-back programs are continuing.  Accepted medications included: over-the-counter meds, medication samples, medications for pets, vitamins, medicated ointments/lotions, inhalers and liquid medications in glass or leak proof containers and all prescriptions except controlled substances.

To find out more about the Washington State ‘Medicine Take Back Program’ with proposed 2012 legislation requiring drug manufactures to take back unused medications for disposal and current pharmacies and law enforcement accepting unwanted meds go to:

Additional information about the hazards of medications in our environment can be found online at the Teleosis Institute – a Green Health Care and Environmental Health organization:


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