Our medicine cabinets contain a huge variety of compounds that help us stay healthy. Many of them make an incredible difference in a person’s ability to live a happy and healthy life. When taken by the wrong person or in the wrong dose, however, they can have the opposite effect and end up causing harm. Not only are people harmed by medication of the wrong type or wrong dose – when human medications reach the aquatic world, they can directly affect the organisms living there.
Pharmaceutical and over the counter medications from our homes reaches the water through our wastewater disposal systems – sinks and toilets. There are many different ways to treat wastewater and many treatment designs. Very few completely remove the wide variety of medicinal products that go down the drain. When treated wastewater is released into the environment, the remaining medications go with it. Studies over the last 10 years have documented a variety of medicinal products in surface waters downstream of treatment plants including anti-depressants, blood thinners, birth control hormones, and caffeine. Other studies have shown that they are present in concentrations that can affect behavior and health of fish, mussels and other aquatic organisms. PBS’s Nova has an excellent article on this issue.
We need our medications to keep healthy and recover from illness. When we use them, we also excrete them so it’s not possible to remove all traces of medicines from the wastewater leaving our homes. We can reduce the amount however, by disposing of unwanted medicines in ways that keep them out of our waters:
- take prescription painkillers and other controlled medications to a designated collection facility. The Vermont Department of Health maintains a list of collection sites.
- dispose of other unwanted medications in the trash. Though landfills also discharge to surface waters, there is some opportunity for decay and decomposition in the landfill.