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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Experts Advise Against Ditching Meds In The Trash

February 8, 2010

A new study from Maine advises against throwing most unused or expired medications into trash bound for landfills. 

According to a survey by the state’s environmental agency, small amounts of discarded drugs were found at three landfills in the state, confirming that pharmaceuticals thrown into household trash end up in water that drains through waste.   

Although most of Maine does not draw drinking water from rivers where landfill water is present, other states do.

Lawmakers in Maine are trying to create a bill that would require drug manufacturers to develop and pay for a program to collect unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs from residents and dispose of them.

Scientists and environmentalists have discovered that small amounts of pharmaceuticals end up in drinking water through human excretion in sewers or by pouring leftover medication down the drain. 

Research has revealed that pharmaceuticals sometimes harm fish and that human cells can fail to grow normally in the laboratory when exposed to trace concentrations of certain drugs.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection discovered small amounts of medication ranging from antidepressants and birth control pills to blood pressure and cholesterol prescriptions.  The most prevalent drugs are pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

“People need a way to properly dispose of their drugs, and they’re not getting it right now,” said Mark Hyland, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management.

According to the Associated Press, the bill is one of many programs under consideration in over half a dozen states.

It is opposed by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and partners with other groups that pay for advertising against the proposal.

The lobby acknowledges that previous testing showed that trace levels of pharmaceuticals can be found in water supplies and landfills, but says the levels are so small that they pose little risk.

“The amounts of pharmaceuticals (in the environment) are infinitesimally small,” Marjorie Powell, senior assistant general counsel, told AP. “We’re talking about two drops in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Those two drops are much lower than any doses that would have an effect on humans.”

Last October, the state tested landfill water, also known as leachate, at landfills in Augusta, Brunswick and Bath.  Hyland ordered the study after pharmaceutical industry members expressed skepticism over the presence of pharmaceuticals in leachate.

Leachate is typically piped or trucked in to Maine’s municipal wastewater treatment plants.  Those plants are not equipped to remove drugs from the water before it becomes discharged into rivers and the ocean.

Hyland told AP that the pharmaceuticals found in landfills do not pose a direct threat to drinking water. 

In Maine, there are no wastewater plants that treat leachate and discharge into rivers that ultimately supply drinking water.  However, high concentrations of leachate can pose a threat to fish and shellfish. 

Research suggests that hormonal drugs like birth control pills tend to feminize fish, according to Hyland.  This could result in a lower number of male fish to continue reproduction.

“What you find are greater concentrations of females downstream from where they’ve seen a dose of hormones, so you find a feminization of the fish population where there are fewer males around,” Hyland told AP.

Hyland said he questions the effect of commercial seafood in ocean waters downstream from rivers, particularly bivalves like clams or mussels.

“But obviously we need to know a lot more before we can draw a lot of conclusions,” he said.

Andy Tolman, a geologist with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that even though landfill leachate does not get into drinking water supplies in Maine, it most likely does in other places.

“Many larger states have big rivers that are used for both waste disposal and drinking water supplies, places like Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Tolman was quoted as saying. “The same river gets used a number of times, and they’re very concerned about treatment of sewage and leachate.”

Powell, from the pharmaceutical lobby, said people could properly dispose of their drugs in their household trash.  She said that, in Maine, much trash is burned and pollution control experts think that incinerating unwanted drugs is the safest solution.

She said that if the bill passes, it would only make drugs more expensive.

An Associated Press investigation reported in 2008 that drinking water of at least 51 million Americans contains a small concentration of a multitude of drugs.

It’s vastly believed that the majority of drugs get put into the water supplies from human and animal excretion, and smaller amounts come from flushing them in the toilet or throwing them down the drain. 

Federal guidelines recommend using community drug take-back programs to dispose of medications.  According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, if those are not available, then people should mix their unwanted drugs with cat litter or some other undesirable substance and put them into a sealed container in the trash.