Water Please, Hold the Pharmaceuticals

The medicines that we all take are prescribed with the goal of improving our health in some way. Unfortunately, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals that we use are finding their way into our nation’s waterways, impacting aquatic life, and potentially threatening our health.


There are two ways medications are finding their way into our water bodies, rather than our human bodies. First, our bodies excrete unabsorbed portions of medications and those end up in wastewater. In small doses they are diluted, but when combined via the wastewater system they can have a greater impact. The other way these medications find their way into our water bodies is through our disposal of unused medications.  Often we flush unused medications down the drain or toilet thinking they will get treated down the line. However, the facilities that treat wastewater often do not have the capability to remove all the medicines, hormones, and other compounds that are present, and they pass through the treatment system into our receiving waters.

Research into this issue began about a decade ago (Kolpin et al., 2002), but is still ongoing. Some studies have begun to show the impacts of these compounds on aquatic life. In addition, potentially harmful compounds derived from medications have been found in treated drinking water supplies in municipal systems around the country. While alarming, it should be noted research has not yet demonstrated a link between drug residues in the environment and effects on human health. Nonetheless, limiting the amount of medications finding their way into our waterways is a good idea.

So what can we do? Obviously we can’t do much about the things that pass through our body, but we can change how we dispose of unused medications. Here is what Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection recommends (http://www.ct.gov/dcp/cwp/view.asp?a=3501&q=444606&PM=1):

  1. If you can find a drug take back facility or event, bring unused medications there. Many towns are hosting these events, and it is a safe and secure disposal method.
  2. If you can’t find a disposal event, dispose of the medication in the trash in this way:
    1. Keep the medication in its original container, and remove the label.
    2. Make the medication less appealing by mixing it with hot water, or add another substance like used coffee grounds.
    3. Place it in another container, and tape it shut.
    4. Put the container in the trash, NOT the recycling bin.

Here are some other helpful resources:



Kolpin, D. W., E. T. Furlong, M. T. Meyer, E. M. Thurman, S. D. Zaugg, L. B. Barber and H. T. Buxton. 2002. Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in U.S. streams, 1999-2000: a national reconnaissance. Environ. Sci. Technol. Vol. 36, pp. 1202-1211.