Pharmaceutical drug contamination in our groundwater, rivers, estuaries, and bays is an emerging issue throughout our state, and our nation. Flushing unwanted or unused medication has been the common disposal practice, despite the fact that our sewage treatment plants, septic systems, and drinking water infrastructure were never designed to remove these contaminants. Pharmaceuticals enter our wastewater from a variety of sources, including the flushing of unused medications. A nationwide study done in 1999 and 2000 by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) found low levels of drugs such as antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives, and steroids in 80% of the rivers and streams tested. Although more research is needed, research available confirms the presence of pharmaceuticals in NY’s water sources. There are currently no local, state, or federal policies that prevent improper disposal of pharmaceutical drugs.
Health & Environmental Effects of Pharmaceutical Waste
Effects of constant, low-level exposure of various pharmaceuticals on ecosystems and humans are uncertain. Possible health concerns include hormone disruption, antibiotic resistance, and synergistic effects. As for aquatic life, antidepressants, in particular, can alter the behavior and reproductive functions of fish and mollusks.
A Stony Brook University study analyzed components of treated sewage effluent and its effects on marine life. The study found that winter flounder in Jamaica Bay are experiencing feminization. That is, the ratio of female to male winter flounder was 10:1 in the studied area. The study’s author acknowledged that compounds from pharmaceuticals can act as hormone mimics and cause reproductive health effects. The NYS DEC website states, "A number of studies have shown impacts on aquatic life. For example, male fish have been feminized (produced eggs) when exposed to hormones (birth control pills). Other drugs, such as anti-depressants and beta-blockers, reduce fertility or affect spawning in certain aquatic organisms."
Presence of Pharmaceuticals in Our Waters
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of Interior, in coordination with Suffolk County, found pharmaceutically active compounds present in Suffolk County groundwater. The study collected 70 samples from the Upper Glacial and Magothy aquifers and tested for various known pharmaceuticals. Of the 70 samples taken, pharmaceuticals were detected in 28, and many of the positive samples contained more than one compound. The most commonly detected compounds present were an antiepileptic drug called arbamazepine (detected in 18/70 samples) and an antibiotic by the name of sulfamethoxazole (detected in 9/70 samples.) Research concluded that these compounds were discharged in treated and untreated sewage discharges. The shallow sand and gravel qualities of the LI aquifer system may be susceptible to wastewater contamination from discharges.
National studies have found that pharmaceutical drugs have been detected in drinking water supplies of 41 million Americans. One conducted by the USGS found low levels of drugs such as antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids in 80% of the rivers and streams tested. Multiple studies in our region conducted in recent years confirm the presence of pharmaceuticals in NY’s water sources. Pharmaceuticals detected in NYS include: heart medicines, antibiotics, estrogen, mood stabilizers, and tranquilizers.
Almost all known sources of pharmaceuticals in the environment first pass through wastewater treatment; through residents flushing unused waste, through healthcare facilities, from passing through human excrement, and waste coming from pharmaceutical manufacture facilities. Despite this, wastewater treatment plants are not required to be equipped with pharmaceutical filter devices. A 2010 USGS study found that, in New York State, wastewater treatment plants that accept waste from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities contained pharmaceuticals in their effluent at levels 10 to 1000 times higher than those typically found in treated wastewater effluents.
Currently, there are no comprehensive data concluding that pharmaceuticals in drinking water have long-term effects on human health. There are no state or federal regulations on what levels are acceptable in drinking water. In fact, many water companies do not test their water for pharmaceuticals.
Despite further research needed, it is clear that pharmaceuticals are unnecessarily entering into our water supplies, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and bays.
Part of the solution is to STOP flushing drugs and establish drug take-back programs. This can be done through legislation, education, and enforcement.
The Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010, signed by President Obama, is meant to encourage voluntary take-back programs – programs hindered in the past by federal drug enforcement and hazardous waste disposal laws that failed to differentiate between pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs.
Specifically, the new law amends the federal Controlled Substances Act to give the U.S. Attorney General authority to promulgate regulations allowing patients to deliver unused prescription drugs to "appropriate entities" for safe disposal. The law also allows for the authorization of pharmaceutical drug disposal by long-term health care facilities on behalf of their patients.
Suffolk County Legislation
Pharmaceutical waste is especially of concern at hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, and long-term care facilities, where large quantities of medications are used. Suffolk County can be a leader in preventing significant quantities of pharmaceutical contamination from entering our waters. Resolution #1042 calls for all hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, and long-term care facilities to annually establish and file with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services a plan for the safe disposal of unused and/or expired medications.
On Tuesday, March 22, 2011, the Suffolk County Legislature voted 17-0 in favor of I.R. 1042. It is now a law that all hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, and long-term care facilities in Suffolk County, NY must annually submit a plan for the safe disposal of unused and/or expired medications. Citizens Campaign for the Environment applauds the Suffolk County Legislature for its forward thinking and responsible actions to prevent additional pharmaceutical drugs from entering surface and groundwater across Long Island.
Resident Take-Back Programs
New York State
NYS operates nine pharmaceutical take-back locations across the State. The medication drop box program is open to the public. The public can anonymously dispose of prescription medications, medicated ointments, over-the-counter medications, and inhalers. Hazardous materials and needles are not accepted. Pharmacies and medical providers are not allowed to take part in the program.
Drop Box Locations
- Troop A - Batavia
4525 West Saile Drive
Batavia, NY 14020-1095
- Troop B - Ray Brook
1097 State Route 86
Ray Brook, NY 12977-0100
- Troop C - Sidney
823 State Route 7
Unadilla, NY 13849
- Troop D – Oneida
Oneida, NY 13421-0030
- Troop E - Canandaigua
1569 Rochester Road
Canandaigua, NY 14425-0220
- Troop F - Middletown
55 Crystal Run Road
Middletown, NY 10941
- Troop G - Latham
760 Troy - Schenectady Road
Latham, NY 12110
- Troop K - Poughkeepsie
2541 Route 44
Salt Point, NY 12578
- Troop L - Farmingdale
7140 Republic Airport
East Farmingdale, NY 11735-1597
The Connecticut DEP issues permits to hold pharmaceutical take-back days, and serves as a clearinghouse for collection day notifications. CT requires that either the local police or a drug control agent from the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection be present.
Three New York State counties – Monroe, Rockland, and Suffolk – have regular drug disposal programs.
Monroe County typically holds around 7 pharmaceutical disposal dates per month throughout the county for residents only. The pharmaceutical disposal is done with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department to ensure proper disposal and handling of pharmaceuticals, and to allow for controlled substances.
Rockland County has the "Operation Medicine Cabinet" program. Residents are able to bring all outdated, unused and unwanted medications including all controlled & non controlled substances to the Rockland County Sheriff's Office on the 2nd Saturday of each month, between 10am and 2pm, unless otherwise posted on the Sheriff's Office website.
The county police department hosts a drop-off container at each precinct location. The "Operation Medicine Cabinet" drop-off boxes are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Residents can drop off controlled and uncontrolled substances. Within the first four months, over 800 pounds of drugs were collected. The drugs are burned at a local incinerator.
** Please inquire with your town or county to learn about upcoming local pharmaceutical take-back days.
Updated by bsmith 2/19/13