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Source: RiverheadLOCAL.com

Flush it and forget it? Studies find medications in our drinking water supplies


Posted: March 8, 2011
Originally Published: March 8, 2011

If you think the proper way to dispose of your unused medication is to flush them down the toilet, think again.

Recent environmental studies say drinking water supplies are contaminated by pharmaceutical compounds. Drugs including heart medications, antibiotics, estrogen, mood stabilizers, tranquilizers, contraceptives and steroids have been detected in drinking water supplies and surface waters in New York and throughout the country, according to Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

A host of pharmaceutical compounds are found in the Long Island aquifers tapped for drinking water supplies, including the Magothy aquifer, the deep aquifer that serves as the source for most public drinking water supply systems, she said.

Research indicates that these compounds were discharged in the effluent from domestic or municipal wastewater-treatment systems, Esposito said.

The common practice of disposing unwanted medications by flushing them down the toilet is thought to be a major source of pharmaceuticals in wastewater, she said.

"Effects of constant low-level exposure of various pharmaceuticals on ecosystems and humans are uncertain," Esposito wrote. "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."

"This is an emerging issue," Esposito said. "There are no state or federal regulations that define acceptable levels of pharmaceuticals for drinking and surface waters. This lack of regulation has caused the continued flushing of unused pharmaceuticals, an outdated and dangerous practice of pharmaceutical disposal. This is especially of concern at hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities and long-term care facilities where large quantities of medications are used."

Esposito, along with Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister and about a dozen other environmental advocates are pressing for a bill on the agenda at today's County Legislature meeting that would require hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities to file annually with the county health department their written disposal plans for unused, expired or surplus medications.

All three East End hospitals say they already dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals off site via specially permitted disposal contractors. They already have written policies that prohibit flushing of unwanted medications down the toilet, according their spokespersons.

Expired medications are returned to their manufacturer, according to Peconic Bay Medical Center president and CEO Andrew Mitchell. Other medications are disposed through a licensed vendor.

"This is not something we treat lightly," said Marsha Kenny, director of public affairs at Southampton Hospital. "We have a written policy and procedure in place for some time. It's quite extensive," she said.

"It's good that the County Legislature is drawing public attention to this issue," Kenny added. "It's a real problem and the public needs to be educated about proper disposal of medications."

Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport goes one step further. It has its own "community medication disposal program" to help individuals safely dispose of unused, expired or unwanted medications, according to spokesperson Eileen Solomon. The hospital's pharmacy department accepts medications for disposal, seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., she said. ELIH will accept all over-the-counter medications and prescription medications for both people and pets, Solomon said.

The issue is especially important as the population ages and more people are taking various maintenance medications, according to both environmental advocates and hospital administrators.

"The public needs to understand that flushing medications is not the right way to dispose of them," Kenny said.

Police departments and neighborhood pharmacies often host prescription medication "take-back" Great Peconic Takeback Day held Nov. 17, 2010
days. The Peconic Independent Pharmacy Association held a take-back day throughout the East End in November.

PBMC's Andrew Mitchell added another thought: "A certain amount of pharmaceuticals will enter the wastewater because they are not fully metabolized by the human body. The compounds are discharged by the body," he said. In other words, they are found in human urine and feces.

For this reason, the Suffolk County Water Authority has in the past objected to a 55-and-over condominium project near one of its supply wells, according to former SCWA CEO Stephen Jones in an interview last year. "It's something we are aware of and concerned about, especially as the baby boomer generation ages and the use of prescription medication is more and more prevalent," he said.