What The Experts Say
Research affirms the importance of safe storage and disposal of medicines. Disposing of unwanted or expired medicines in your household trash is safe for your home, safe for your community, and safe for the environment It is supported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
With increasingly sophisticated analytical tools, we can detect virtually any chemical in the environment, including pharmaceuticals. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals are found in waterways because people take them and naturally pass them through their bodies. Disposing of unused pharmaceuticals in the trash (which is then put into a landfill) versus flushing them down the toilet will help reduce the amount of product that makes its way into our waterways.
Scientists continue to study the full effects of pharmaceutical substances in the environment. Organizations including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization are looking to better understand the fate of these chemicals. However, there are no data to suggest an adverse impact on human health.
Here’s what the experts say.
World Health Organization
- The WHO says pharmaceuticals are present in trace concentrations in water sources as a result of wastewater effluents. That is, the vast majority (around 90%) of pharmaceuticals in the water supply arrive there due to human use and excretion—not by disposing of medication in the trash.
- Currently, analysis of the available data indicates that there is a substantial margin of safety between the very low concentrations of pharmaceuticals that would be consumed in drinking water and the minimum therapeutic doses, which suggests a very low risk to human health. Based on this finding, the development of formal health-based guideline values for pharmaceuticals in the WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality is currently not considered to be necessary.
U.S. Geological Survey
- Research hydrologist Dana Kolpin of the United States Geological Survey explains that the only reason we are finding more pharmaceuticals in the water today is because we have the instruments to detect them. In the past, scientists could only measure about 19 pharmaceuticals in a 1-liter sample, but today they use a 15 milliliter vial which can measure 110 pharmaceuticals at much more sensitive levels
American Water Works Association Research Foundation
- “The level of pharmaceuticals in the water, however, are at such low concentrations that there is no indication they pose a threat to human health. In fact, one of the most widely detected medicines in the water is ibuprofen measured at 2.5 parts per trillion. At this level, a person would have to drink 2 liters a day of water for over 100,000 years to get the equivalent of a single 200 mg tablet.”
– Rengao, S. Pharmaceuticals in U.S. Drinking Water and Beyond, Louisville Water Company, referring to AwwaRF Study project #2758
U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife
- “We realize that the majority of medications in the water systems come from natural, metabolic processes but there are a certain amount [there]. […] We suggest that you make [unused medications] inert in some way by adding coffee grounds, litter or something to medications, water so that they are dissolved and broken down, and putting them in a plastic bag, which can be biodegradable, and throwing in the landfill, so they can go to a lined landfill. This [SMARxT] reduces the amount of medications in the water and there is a very miniscule chance that medications will leach from a landfill into groundwater and subsequently into surface water.”
– Dr. Greg Masson, Chief, Branch of Environmental Contaminants for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, promoting in-home disposal in an interview with Florida Psychiatric Society.
- “The main way drug residues enter water systems is by people taking medicines and then naturally passing them through their bodies…many drugs are not completely absorbed or metabolized by the body and can enter the environment after passing through waste water treatment plants.”
– Raanan Bloom, Ph.D., an environmental assessment expert in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research
- “The safe disposal of medicines from the home after they are no longer needed is an important concern for the FDA. For some potent medicines that can cause harm or death if inadvertently taken by family members, the FDA currently recommends flushing them down the sink or toilet to immediately and permanently remove them from the home. Simple precautions like these can reduce the likelihood of accidental and potentially dangerous exposure to unused medicines.”
– Douglas Throckmorton, M.D., deputy center director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
- Current scientific evidence does not support that take-back efforts will make a measurable difference in the levels of pharmaceuticals in waterways, including drinking water, and therefore also on human health.
- “To date, scientists have found no evidence of adverse human health effects from Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in the environment.”
– EPA FAQs on PPCP Fact Sheet, 1/2-0/15
- Disposing of unused pharmaceuticals and personal care products into a landfill and subsequent landfill leachate treatment results in substantially lower estimated total discharges to surface waters when are disposed of by landfilling as opposed to flushing them into public sewers.
– Tischler, L., Buzby, M., Finan,D., and Cunninghamk, L. “Landfill Disposal of Unused Medicines Reduces Surface Water Releases” 2012, Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management — Volume 9, Number 1—pp. 142–154.)