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How’d Pharmaceuticals End Up in My Lake?

There’s Something in the Water

-Brenna Mannion

Drugs in the Water

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves roughly 25 new pharmaceutical products each year. The pharmaceutical industry sells more than double the amount of drugs today than they did in 2000. This is likely good news for the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from chronic pain and other diseases that are treated or cured by these scientific advances. But what happens to the drugs that are not broken down in your body or expire before they can be administered? Here’s what: more and more pharmaceuticals are making it into the world’s waterways. Fish and wildlife use that water for habitat, we use it for recreation and drinking water. You might be thinking: “It’s such a small amount, and there is so much water. Won’t it dilute?” But consider this: Americans take more than 10 prescription drugs, per capita, per year! That doesn’t even include the over the counter things like ibuprofen and acetaminophen. That’s a lot of pharmaceuticals.

There are two avenues through which pharmaceuticals get “down the drain”. The most obvious one is flushing pills down the toilet. For a long time, that was the recommended way to dispose of expired and unwanted prescription drugs. Here’s why: it eliminates the risk of prescription drug abuse. No one wants to swallow a pill that’s been in the toilet. Unfortunately, now we know that those high concentrations of pharmaceutical products make it through the WW treatment process and get into the water. A better method is to mix the meds with something like kitty litter, and throw them in the trash.

Even when you take a medication, it can still find it’s way into a waterway. Know how? Raanan Bloom, Ph.D., with the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research says it best, “many drugs are not completely absorbed or metabolized by the body and can enter the environment after passing through wastewater treatment plants.” Simply put, you pee them out. Time to get a bit gross, but think about the neon yellow color in your toilet bowl after you take a big multivitamin. It’s the same concept with pharmaceuticals…whatever doesn’t get metabolized has to go somewhere.

So, What’s the Problem?

Pharmaceutical by-products, combined with other consumer product residuals liketriclosan (makes your soaps antibacterial) and microbeads (makes your facewash exfoliating) are causing some real problems. There are a number of scientific ongoing studies that will likely raise more cause for concern. Recently, a studyshowed microscopic quantities of these pharmaceutical by-products were found in drinking water.

What can you do?

Medicines improve and save lives. No question. But for each of those life-saving drugs, there are ones overused and misused. Avoid taking over the counter medication unless absolutely necessary. Only use prescription drugs that were prescribed to you; your doctor right-sizes the dosage so the majority of the medication is actually used by your body. Throw out any expired medicine in the trash. It’s a very small step, but if everyone took a few less pills, the environment will benefit!

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