Ensuring Old Drugs Do Not Cause New Problems

2010-11-14 |

Without a doubt, it is hard to argue against the benefits that medications have brought to modern civilization. As a consequence, siding against modern drugs is not likely to gain you much sympathy except from those who believe in some great conspiracy of the pharmaceutical companies to keep us hooked on their products. To their credit, medicines have all but eliminated some medical conditions and have dramatically improved the quality of life for people with other health issues. As a downside however, the disposal of medications, like other technologies, is often handled poorly.

In the US, approximately 70% of all medical visits involve treatment with some level of drug therapy. As a result, patients receive some 2.3 billion orders of medication per year at a total cost of $3.7 billion US. At any given time, almost 50% of us have used a minimum of one prescription medication within the past month. At the same time, from 2000 to 2008, the amount of people who have used a prescription within the last month has increased by more than 10%. This says nothing about the volume of drugs that are used without a prescription. Simply put, keeping healthy and more or less happy currently involves us using a significant amount of medication.

Not surprisingly, all of this use of medication results in waste. One form of which is the unprocessed medication from our bodies that makes it into our waste products and then into the sewage systems. The other form of waste is from drugs that we do not use and decide to throw away. These can end up flushed down the toilet or in the garbage depending on how governments recommend and individuals decide to throw away the drugs. Only in some regions are drugs actually collected and processed, yet almost 20% of prescription drugs are never used.

For either common form of waste drug disposal, water pollution is the biggest consequence. For those drugs disposed of in garbage and subsequently in landfills, often these drugs will seep into the ground water because of poor quality containment of the landfill site. For drugs flushed down the toilet, poor waste water treatment systems and the very nature of some drugs means that they will end up in the ground water. In either case, pharmaceutical pollution of ground water can affect other species and for those who more concerned about human welfare, it also affects our drinking water.

While neither source of waste is very good, the more easily preventable form of waste is in those medications that we have not consumed. Although some people may argue that the few pills left over in a prescription are so small in comparison to other sources of waste, the amount of waste medications is actually quite significant.

To put it in perspective, research from Touro University found that in 2007, almost 20 tons of pharmaceuticals were being disposed of in US sewage systems from only the one-time disposal efforts of coroners dealing with the dead. If we consider the volume of expired drugs in our collective medicine cabinets that are due for disposal, the numbers become far higher.

At the same time, it is not simply the volume of pollution that makes it dangerous. Many types of medications can work in very small concentrations, so even a small amount of drugs in the water supply can have negative consequences on our health. To find an example, we need only consider the endocrine disruptor chemicals that have been in the news for more than a decade.

These “gender bending” estrogen mimics have been responsible for many rivers in Europe having populations of fish where males are showing female physical attributes. Considering the many forms of drugs that we use for our health, there are many ways in which polluted drinking water could affect our well-being.

Were it simply affecting drinking water, some people might decide to seek out high price water filtration systems to keep themselves safe from the pollution. However, the reality is that pharmaceutical pollution also involves antibiotics, including the last few pills that we were suppose to finish to treat an infection but did not. At this point medical science is still trying to determine whether the antibiotic pollution of groundwater is contributing to the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Having seen the impacts from pharmaceutical water pollution as well as the potential risks of antibiotic resistance, many governments are starting to take action. In some locations, governments have been aiding in the collection of unused drugs for almost two decades, while in other regions they have put in place laws to make it easier to dispose of such drugs safely through the setup of “take back” programs. Unfortunately, in the cases where a government does not step up and directly take on the role of drug disposal, people are left with a patchwork of solutions often supported by pharmacies and other organizations to varying degrees.

This at least means that those with a desire to do what is right can often dispose of their drugs properly, but also means that those who will not go out of their way are likely to keep dumping their drugs in the garbage or flushing them down the toilet.

To really ensure that we protect our drinking water and minimize our risks from drugs in the natural environment, we need to prevent them from getting there in the first place. We need to ask our pharmacies to take the drugs back if they do not already and need to ask our governments to make such services as available as the postal service. While these drugs have incredible potential to treat illness, there is little point in treating one illness only to cause another.

Related Links

http://www.statehealthfacts.org/profileind.jsp?sub=66&rgn=1&cat=5
http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/drugs.htm
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/health/research/19stats.html
http://www.gwumc.edu/sphhs/about/rapidresponse/download/Rapid_H2O_Final.pdf
http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/86/8608coverbox.html
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/sep2000/oest-s20.shtml
http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.118-a210
http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2010/08/23/gvsd0824.htm

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