Old medicines pollute the environment

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Thu 23rd Aug, 2012

Improperly disposed of pharmaceuticals create a big hazard for the environment and eventually for people

A local resident of Nevyansk narrated to Russia's Channel 4 how his friend had gone fishing and wanted to get some wood for his fire. He found some abandoned "water canisters" and wanted to take them to his house. However, on coming closer, he found out that some of the lids on the four 50-litre plastic containers had come off and the contents were scattered on the ground, revealing little baby bodies, some of them six inches long (18cm). Police confirmed the reports, saying 248 foetuses, aged 12-16 weeks were stashed in the 50-litre containers of formaldehyde. The four 50-litre plastic containers had been in the forest for an unknown duration of time. Officials called the remains "biomedical waste", and their origins were traced to at least three hospitals in the Urals region, in the vicinity of where they were discovered.

How and why the gruesome content was dumped on public land is under investigation. Unfortunately, this is just one extreme instance of many where proper disposal of biomedical waste was neglected. Hospital waste is a potential health hazard for health care workers, the public, and the flora and fauna of an area where dumped if not properly contained. Not only does improperly disposed of hospital waste (this is an extreme case) affect our environment, but something more prevalent and seemingly much more innocuous may have an even greater impact-expired or improperly disposed of pharmaceuticals.

When a patient gets a prescription from a doctor and picks it up from the chemist (pharmacist), nobody is really concerned about what happens afterwards. Whether a patient finishes a prescription or not is a decision left entirely up to him/her. The patient is told to take the dosage completely, for their own good. But often the patients stop taking their medication as soon as they feel better or when their symptoms have improved. So what happens to the unused drugs? Should they discard them in the household waste or return them to the pharmacist? Should they empty them in a sink or toilet? 

Unfortunately, medications that are flushed down the toilet or thrown straight into the garbage often end up in the waterways. This is the water that supports fish and other wildlife, and eventually works its way up the food-chain to humans. It may appear like these compounds may be in such small quantities to have an impact, but the issue is still a large matter of concern for health officials and the environment conscious. According to many NGO's and other governmental agencies like Greenpeace and the EPA, more than 100 different known pharmaceutical compounds have been detected in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and streams throughout the world. And it is happening in ever-increasing amounts and frequency.

According to a paper published by the NRDC White Paper (Natural Resources Defense Council), "The pathway for pharmaceuticals entering the waste stream can be characterized as either unintentional or intentional. 'Unintentional releases' refers to the excretion of both metabolized and un-metabolized pharmaceuticals from animals or humans. 'Intentional releases,' on the other hand, refers to the disposal of unused or expired pharmaceuticals by flushing down the toilet, rinsing down the sink, or throwing into the trash. Even within these categories, there are major differences," the paper goes on. "For example, pharmaceuticals unintentionally released by humans are usually excreted into a sewer system, which treats the contaminants to some extent with various techniques prior to discharge. On the other hand, pharmaceuticals used in aquaculture and agriculture are often discharged directly into the water or soil without treatment."

Just like any other kind of chemical waste there is no clear preferred final disposal solution for collected, unused pharmaceuticals. However, according to the NRDC paper, although incineration and land filling both have well-recognized problems; both disposal options are superior to flushing medications down the drain, where they all subsequently enter our waterways.
Incineration and land filling may be easier done on an industrial level, but it is more difficult on a personal level. But there is a bit one can do to promote environmental safety.

  • First, do not flush unused medication. People believe that expired or unused medicines should be flushed, due to their abuse potential. Well, it is advisable to read the instructions on the pack and to talk to your pharmacist. 
  • Second, spare some time to crush solid medications, and put them in a plastic bag before disposing of them, as this way you will protect children and pets from other adverse effects. If the medication is in liquid form, dissolve it in water first before disposing of it. 
  • Third, as often as you can, go through your medicine cabinet and remove all prescription and non-prescription drugs that are expired or you can no longer take. Take them all back to your pharmacy. If you are not sure if a drug is still safe to use, check with your pharmacist. The pharmacist will also give you very important information on how to dispose of the drugs, especially because some pose more risks than others. Some regions have different collection modes for household hazardous waste including drugs. If your region offers such a program, go ahead and get rid of your expired and unused drugs via them. 

These three practical steps will go a long way in helping to protect the family and community, minimize a potential negative impact on the environment and prevent the undesirable dispersal of unused medications.

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