Used medications causing serious harm to the environment: how you can help

January 19, 2016

Medications are causing serious harm to the environment.

It’s well known that improperly discarded medications are seeping into our water system, but research shows that medications are also entering the water supply from our feces and urine. In fact, up to 90 percent of certain drugs will end up in the water system.

“When we talk about pharmaceutical waste, we don’t usually talk about the leftover medications that are not used,” Lowell Anderson, Dsc, professor in the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, said. “We don’t talk about the medications that we ingest and are excreted in some form.”

A number of drugs have been found in lakes and streams. They go through the sewage and water waste management system, which purifies the water, but misses the drugs because the quantity is too small to separate. As a result, there have been instances of male fish becoming feminized because of the levels of estrogen in the water, and traces of antidepressants have been detected in the brain, liver and muscle of some fish.

Anderson is in the beginning stages of implementing a Swedish-based program that tackles this problem. Researchers in Sweden created a booklet that lists the prescription medications used in the country. Each of the medications listed contains a ranking of how frequently each drug is used and how harmful it could be to the environment.

“There has been great feedback,” Anderson said of the program in Sweden. “People are changing their medications so they are less harmful.”

Every state and city has unique medication habits. Under the Swedish plan, each program is tailored to the needs of each community. The US program would follow suit: if there is a drug in the Midwest that is not used frequently, it won’t be a large environmental problem. As a result, a physician could prescribe it without fear it will harm the environment.

While this program will help, Anderson says there are other ways we can protect the environment from medication waste.

Once medications are discontinued, it’s important to dispose of the unused drugs properly, rather than flushing them down the toilet or throwing them in the trash. There are take-back programs that will take unused medications and dispose of them properly by incineration.

“We as patients are not good at taking our medications,” Anderson said. “Every medicine cabinet in Minnesota has unused prescription medications. If you have extra medications, ask your pharmacist where the nearest disposal is.”

Another practical approach to reducing environmental hazards from medication use is to implement rational prescribing.

“When you’re getting a new prescription, don’t get the full 90 days the first time it’s filled,” Anderson suggests. “Ask the pharmacist for a 10 day supply to understand if it is effective. If the answer is yes, get the balance of the prescription.”

Anderson wants to see starter prescriptions become common practice so if our medications don’t work, we don’t have old medications sitting in our medicine cabinets.

“It’s one of the few things that we as patients can do to have an effect on the environment,” Anderson said. “Every day we can have a positive effect on the environment.”