Are You Taking Your Neighbor’s Meds?

Laurie Powell

Laurie Powell

Guest Contributor | BIO

Back in November, I wrote about the presence of pharmaceuticals in your drinking water. I had read that you could drop off your unused over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and your pharmaceuticals at drug stores and police stations. But, what do THEY do with the drugs? Because if they are just dumping your drugs into their own toilets, that doesn’t really solve the problem of contaminated drinking water, does it? I decided to investigate and find out what becomes of drugs that you dispose of as directed by your community and our government.

“There’s no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they’re at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms,” noted Mary Buzby, director of environmental technology for Merck.

One of the ways prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs get into our water supply is that people are flushing their unused prescriptions down the toilet. Sewage filtration doesn’t eliminate the drugs in our drinking water, as the particulate is too fine and passes right through the filter. So, I went to the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) website to read what they advise. The FDA recommends that you to take your OTC drugs and most prescription drugs out of their original container and mix them with coffee grounds, dirt, or used kitty litter, place them in a plastic bag, and throw the bag in the garbage. In other words, make them unpalatable to a drug addict or someone who might be going through your garbage looking for drugs. Yes, that definitely does sound unappealing even to a junkie. But, what the FDA isn’t considering is that those drugs are just going to wind up in some landfill and over time, make their way back into the soil and eventually into the water table. I don’t much like their suggestion. And, it highlights the need for FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work together which currently they do not.

dangerous water young asian woman looking at water looking unhappy or disgusted

The FDA has an extensive list of drugs that should be flushed down the toilet.  You’ll never believe which drugs are listed! All the opioid and narcotic pain killers and other highly potent and addictive drugs that addicts would be looking for in your garbage. The very same drugs that will end up in some diluted form in our water supply! That makes absolutely NO SENSE at all. Since we now know that drugs can’t be completely filtered out, it’s like we’re all being slowly and methodically sedated. Comfortably numb. Funny how, despite being sedated against my will, I’m still uncomfortable with that thought.

I’ve been researching the drug disposal methods that are recommended by other government agencies and I’m having a hard time finding out what actually happens to those drugs. Drilling down into the FDA & the EPA’s site, I found that there is a very complex system of local police stations and pharmacies becoming “Drug Collection” centers for the purpose of destroying your unused and or expired drugs.

The government has a rigorous application process for pharmacies to become prescription drug collection sites. There are also highly publicized public Drug Collections held at local police stations which are supervised by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). I called our local police department and found that they hold drug collection events twice a year working with their DEA point of contact who then comes and picks up the drugs for destruction.  The detective I spoke with did not know how the prescription drugs are actually destroyed. So I put a call in to the DEA. The DEA burns the drugs they collect in a commercial facility. They  burn them  to ash which deactivates the drug’s effectiveness and its mechanism of action in the body.  Whatever ash remaining becomes inert and then it is dumped.

With all the focus on destroying opioids so addicts can’t get to them, these organized programs are not addressing the other drugs that are routinely flushed down the toilet. Like antidepressants, oral diabetes drugs, anti-seizure medications, antibiotics, and hormones, et cetera. Why doesn’t that worry public officials like it worries me?

There are environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have taken matters into their own hands. One such program is Operation Medicine Drop which is run by each state. It was initiated by NGOs like Watershed Protection agencies, COASTKEEPER, and River Keepers, et al. They work in conjunction with the DEA to be sure that the drugs are incinerated.

The trouble is that there is no across-the-board national program for keeping prescription drugs out of our water supply. Therefore, you need to be diligent about testing your own water using a private firm. As we learned from the Flint, Michigan debacle, you cannot rely on your city Water Authority to protect your public water supply or to even be honest about test results.

The other way that drugs get into our water supply is through one’s urine. Since the body only metabolizes 75% of the drug and the rest is being excreted with our urine, drugs are going to the sewage plant. What we need is for all sewage treatment plants to forget about the fluoride it adds, which is toxic anyway, and to filter water thoroughly the way reverse osmosis technology works. But, they also need to capture the runoff of water which is the drawback of the reverse osmosis process. As we capture that runoff we also need to find a way to filter that water in some way so that no water is wasted.

Next Steps?

Now that you know more about the public water you drink, how does that impact your thoughts and actions regarding your own drinking water?  What will you do next time you turn on your tap?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Laurie Powell

Guest Contributor


Alexis Keiser

This is a very serious issue. I think a particularly worrisome aspect involves the use of hormonal products. Many, many women take hormonal birth control or other hormonal treatments for menopause, etc. As you mention, metabolites or dissolved substances from these products can end up in our water. Though a host of other industrial chemicals are likely to blame for much of this we are observing decreased sperm counts in males world-wide and wildlife has been shown to be similarly affected. Endocrine disruption, especially by chemicals with an estrogenic component is affecting many people and even organisms in the environment. If the product you use, such as hormonal birth control cannot be proven to have no deleterious effects on your neighbor or the the environment I think it is problematic to continue using it. At minimum there needs to be a societal dialog on this issue.

Laurie Powell

I agree, Alexis. I have called my state representatives voicing concern over the quality of my water table. I’m hoping this blog gets people thinking & prompts them to action. What do you think the next steps should be? Would you be willing to bring this up at local meeting in your area?


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