Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: The Journal News

Community View: Millions have pharma drugs in water; better disposal needed


Posted: April 1, 2013
Originally Published: March 29, 2013

Throughout the nation, water bodies are being polluted with pharmaceutical drugs. Trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs have been detected in the drinking water sources of an estimated 41 million Americans. A study by the United States Geological Survey found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in 80 percent of streams and rivers that were tested.

Pharmaceutical contamination is a growing problem across the nation, and Westchester is no exception. In 2009, New York’s Department of Health reported that Westchester’s drinking water sources contain trace amounts of antibiotics, hormones, antidepressants, tranquilizers, heart disease medication, and painkillers.

Part of the reason for this water contamination is unavoidable; people take medicine, which flushes through the body and ends up in wastewater. What is avoidable, however, is people flushing their unwanted pills down the drain.

Despite the fact that sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, and drinking water infrastructure were never equipped to treat pharmaceutical waste, for decades the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the public flush unused medications down the toilet. It’s no surprise then that many residents and institutions still flush. It is time to change our behavior to protect our water quality and our health.

Though the effects of constant, long-term exposure to various pharmaceuticals on humans is still uncertain, pharmaceutical contamination poses a potential public health risk, particularly for small children and fetuses. Ingesting tiny doses of antibiotics may lead to antibiotic resistance or create synergistic effects with other medications, and constant exposure to hormones may cause disruption to the endocrine system.

More research on the effects of pharmaceutical exposure on humans is needed, but studies on aquatic life reveal that they experience feminization and reproductive defects when exposed to pharmaceuticals in water. The negative impacts on water quality and marine life, possible human health implications, and prescription drug abuse have prompted many municipalities to begin implementing programs encouraging safe pharmaceutical disposal.

The EPA now recommends incinerating unused pharmaceutical drugs as the best way to address environmental and concerns of drug abuse. To help ensure that drugs are disposed of safely, Westchester has begun holding periodic drug take-back days and installing permanent collection boxes in police precincts.

The police precincts in Bedford, Briarcliff Manor, Croton, Mount Pleasant, Mount Vernon, Ossining village, Port Chester, Pound Ridge, Rye Brook, White Plains, and Yorktown have all installed collection boxes so residents can anonymously drop off prescriptions any day of the week. The Household Material Recovery Facility (H-MRF) in Valhalla takes back pharmaceuticals by appointment the first Tuesday of every month.

This is a great first step, but more must be done to ensure that the public has a convenient way to safely get rid of their unwanted medications. Pending federal regulations would allow pharmacies and grocery stores with pharmacies to voluntarily install collection boxes similar to those in police precincts, so shoppers could simply dispose of their old pills when picking up a new prescription. When finalized, this new federal rule will provide more options for the public to safely dispose of their unused medications.

While more needs to be done to ensure that residents are not flushing their medications, steps must be taken to address flushing at health care institutions, which handle large quantities of pharmaceuticals daily.

Westchester County is now considering a local law requiring long-term care facilities, hospitals, nursing homes, and hospitals to submit an annual plan to the County Health Department detailing their safe drug disposal plans. Suffolk County was the first county in New York to pass a law like this, and the first set of annual reports showed that 51% of the health care facilities there were flushing controlled substances. There is no reason to believe that institutions here in Westchester are any different. It is crucial that Westchester County take action and work with these facilities to ensure safe disposal of unwanted drugs.

The issue of pharmaceutical contamination is relatively new, but we need to be proactive. Westchester has the opportunity to be a national leader on the issue of pharmaceutical disposal by moving forward with the local law for health care institutions, increasing public access to safe disposal options, and committing to educating residents and institutions on why and how to safely dispose of unwanted drugs.

Westchester residents must also take personal responsibility to stop flushing drugs. We will be protecting the Hudson River, Long Island Sound, our drinking water and our public health in the process. Now that sounds like a good plan!