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What to do with drug waste

what to do with drug waste

What to do with drug waste

By: Patrick Moore, OpEd Contributor
Washington Examiner
April 2, 2009

While Americans are doing everything they can in these uncertain times to save money and reduce costs, environmental activists have been busy pushing an agenda that is likely to raise the cost of medical care.

Across the U.S., environmental activists are raising alarm over the presence of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in the water supply even though the medicines are found at extremely low levels.

In fact, the trace amounts are at such low levels that they are measured in parts per trillion – that’s roughly equivalent to one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Nothing in the scientific literature suggests such low levels are in the least bit harmful to human health or the environment.

Yet at the worst possible time, these activists are calling for elaborate and expensive drug take-back programs that will likely result in increased medical costs that Americans can’t afford – and with no added benefit to human health or the environment.

So what’s the best way to safely dispose of medications and protect the environment without resorting to expensive take back programs?

The pharmaceuticals industry started research on the issue a decade ago by looking at all the ways disposed medication might enter into the environment through surface waters.

One possible pathway they looked at was consumers disposing of unused medication in household trash, where it would then be sent to municipal solid waste landfills. What they found is important:

First, medication in surface waters was found only at trace levels. These levels pose no risk to human health.

Second, the study emphasized the benefit of disposing of unused medicine in the regular household trash because it can then be held securely in landfills and virtually none of the medicine ends up in surface water.

The study found that if all unused medicines were disposed of in household trash – instead of being flushed down the toilet – the trace amounts of medicine being found in the environment would decline even further.

Third, the trace amounts of medication found in surface water as a result of medication being flushed down the toilet can be stopped by better educating the public.

The evidence clearly shows that disposing of waste pharmaceuticals in the household trash is a safe and effective means of disposal.

In its simplest form, the findings point to some easy-to-remember do’s and don’ts:

Do: Discard your unused medications in the municipal waste collection system. It will be processed safely under the current system, just as it should be.

Don’t: In most cases, flush unused medications down the toilet and into the sewer system . While it is true a very small amount of un-metabolized medication will likely pass through patients into municipal sewers, these are safe levels and drug take-back programs would have zero impact in this area.

In these difficult economic times, the last thing America needs is complicated and expensive drug take back programs that are likely to contribute to rising healthcare costs.

Instead, let’s keep things simple: Throw your unused prescriptions in the trash and don’t flush them down the toilet.

Dr. Patrick Moore is a co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace, and chair and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. at

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