Pharmaceutical drug contamination in our groundwater, rivers, estuaries, lakes, and bays is an emerging issue throughout New York, Connecticut, and the nation. Pharmaceuticals enter wastewater from a variety of sources, including the flushing of unused medications. Flushing unwanted or unused medication is still a common disposal practice, despite the fact that sewage treatment plants, septic systems, and drinking water infrastructure were never designed to remove these contaminants. While flushing is no longer recommended, it remains a common disposal practice by many residents and in many hospitals and long-term care facilities. There are currently no local, state, or federal policies that prevent improper disposal of pharmaceutical drugs.
Presence of Pharmaceuticals in Our Waters
National studies have found trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water supplies of 41 million Americans. A study conducted by the USGS found low levels of drugs such as antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids in 80% of the rivers and streams tested. Throughout New York State and Connecticut, water sources have tested positive for trace amounts of heart medicines, antibiotics, estrogen, mood stabilizers, tranquilizers, and more., Studies conducted in New York have identified the presence of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water resources of areas including Westchester County and New York City, Long Island, the Great Lakes, and more.
Most known sources of pharmaceuticals in the environment first pass through wastewater treatment; from human waste, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and direct flushing of unused drugs by residents and healthcare facilities. However, wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove pharmaceutical contaminants, which is particularly problematic when treating waste from pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities. 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.
The extent of this problem is still largely unknown, as there are no state or federal regulations on what levels are acceptable in drinking water. Many water suppliers do not even test their water for pharmaceuticals.
Health and Environmental Effects of Pharmaceutical Waste
The effects of constant, low-level exposure of various pharmaceuticals on humans are uncertain, and more research is needed. Possible health concerns include hormone disruption, antibiotic resistance, and synergistic effects.
While the health effects on humans have not yet been proven, pharmaceutical drug contamination has been proven to adversely impact fish and aquatic life. The NYS DEC has indicated that, 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.
Research also indicates that frogs, newts and other amphibians are also at an extraordinarily high risk of exposure, due to their permeable skin. This makes it very easy for amphibians to absorb toxins from their environment, leaving them susceptible to adverse impacts from trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs.
Promoting Safe Pharmaceutical Disposal
It is clear that pharmaceuticals are unnecessarily entering into our water supplies, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and bays. Flushing unused drugs is a highly prevalent and preventable source of pharmaceutical pollution. Therefore, a critical part of the solution is to STOP flushing drugs. Providing the public and healthcare facilities with access to safe and convenient pharmaceutical disposal options is critical to preventing pharmaceutical pollution. Pharmaceutical take-back events and permanent drop-off locations exist across New York and Connecticut. Members of the public can safely and anonymously dispose of unused or expired medications. The NYS DEC holds biannual take back events for healthcare facilities in the NYC watershed, Monroe County, and Suffolk County, NY. While all of these programs are an important step in the right direction, New York and Connecticut must significantly expand safe disposal options for both the public and healthcare facilities to adequately address the growing problem of pharmaceutical pollution.
Listen to Our PSA on Safe Disposal of Unused Pharmaceuticals:
Federal Legislation and Rulemaking
The Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010 was passed into law to encourage voluntary drug take-back programs. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) adopted a rule to implement the law and provide additional voluntary options for safe pharmaceutical disposal, including permanent drop boxes at retail pharmacies. CCE is working to ensure that the law is implemented in New York and Connecticut, thus providing more options for safe pharmaceutical disposal.
Suffolk County Legislation
After a 2006 USGS study found pharmaceutical contaminants in Suffolk County groundwater, the county became a state-wide leader in addressing the problem. In 2011, the Suffolk County Legislature unanimously passed a local law requiring all hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, and long-term care facilities in Suffolk County, NY to annually submit a plan for the safe disposal of unused and/or expired medications. CCE compiled data from the first set of these reports and found that more than half of the facilities were flushing unused mediations CCE has released a report on these findings, and is working with institutions to promote safe pharmaceutical disposal practices.
Updated by lburch 2/3/16