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Sustainable Solutions to Pharmaceutical Waste in our Water

In major industrial countries, there are certain assumptions we make about the resources we rely on — that we can always count on electricity, that there will be food at the store and that the water we drink is both safe and clean.

Medicines, Image Credit:

However, that may not always be the case. Water purification technology is advanced, but even high-tech systems aren’t designed to filter out 100% of the toxins in the water supply. Pharmaceutical waste — most often seen in the form of microscopic chemical compounds — is especially difficult to purify. For years now, water quality researchers have been discovering trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in waterways across the country.

There’s no telling yet what this waste will mean for both us and the environment. But scientists caution that long-term health effects and environmental damage are a possibility.

There are ways to sustainably manage the pharmaceutical waste that is already in our water — and also stop new waste from polluting the environments.

Where Pharmaceutical Waste Comes From

There have been big pushes in the last few years to stop the flushing of pharmaceuticals. The DEA publishes guidelines for alternative medication disposal methods, and some cities and counties have even banned flushing unused medicine. The efforts have helped, but only so much. The reason? Most of the pharmaceutical waste in water doesn’t come from flushed pills.

Instead, there are two main sources for pharmaceutical waste. The first is from medicine that doesn’t fully metabolize when taken. Eventually, it passes out of the body and then travels through pipes into the water system. Wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to capture all pharmaceutical chemicals, and some of the medical compounds naturally escape into the environment.

The second source of pharmaceutical waste is from the large quantities of antibiotics used on factory farms. On large-scale factory farms, regular antibiotic treatment of livestock is the norm — according to the FDA, 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold or distributed to farmers in 2016. The livestock’s waste is treated and used as fertilizer — or in some scenarios, is improperly stored and simply runs off into local water. Even when treated — and especially when it’s not — this waste can contain high levels of antibiotic compounds, or even entire drugs.

How Pharmaceutical Waste Impacts the Environment

There are a wide variety of pharmaceutical compounds that are present in our water — and any of them may have serious long-term health and environmental effects.

The levels of pharmaceuticals are low enough that it would take a lot of water — a year’s worth — for you to consume even a single dose. Scientists are worried that constant exposure to antibiotics could make bacteria in our body more resistant to treatment. They are also concerned that constant low-grade exposure to other compounds could have serious impacts, even if it takes years to take in a complete dose.

The effects could be even more significant for the much smaller animals and plants in our waterways. For example, even trace levels of anti-anxiety medication is enough to change the behavior of fish.

And antibiotics are already known to be capable of causing serious harm to micro-organisms that are essential parts of their ecosystems. And in the long term, antibiotics in the water may hurt people as well. Long-term antibiotic contamination may also result in water-borne bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics.

Because pharmaceutical waste wasn’t thought to be a major threat to water in the past, much of the research into the topic is just now beginning. While there has been a great deal of research on the topic — and we do know that there are noticeable amounts of pharmaceuticals in our water systems throughout the country — we don’t have great data on how much pharmaceutical waste is out there. To make the situation worse, many water monitoring services — governmental or NGO — don’t focus on monitoring the levels of pharmaceutical waste in water.

Because of the lack of research and monitoring, it may be years before we know the full scope of how pharmaceutical waste can impact the environment. Scientists do fear, however, that the problem may grow even worse as the population ages and comes to depend more and more on pharmaceuticals.

But even without comprehensive data, actions can be taken to start solving the problem of pharmaceutical waste in water. Now that the risks have been identified, it’s possible to begin changing the way we regulate our water to reduce pharmaceutical waste starting today.

Possible Solutions to Pharmaceutical Waste

New regulations could help us reduce the level of pharmaceutical waste in water. Scientists also have some possible answers to the problem of pharmaceutical waste in our waters. And in some countries, new pharmaceutical design that could reduce the levels of waste is already being implemented.

Improved Pharmaceutical Waste Guidelines

One solution could be new regulations that reduce the level of antibiotics the farmers are allowed to use or require better treatment of farm waste. Implementing both would be best, but either one could seriously help lower the levels of antibiotics entering local water systems.

New regulations would also help reduce the presence of other dangerous compounds that factory farms produce. Farm waste can introduce other toxic compounds — like high levels of nitrates — into groundwater. Better regulations could reduce pharmaceutical waste levels while also helping reduce some of the high levels of other compounds that can seriously affect the health of both people and their local environment.

Other regulations could require better storage of farm waste. One of the biggest environmental disasters of the past decade — the flooding of North Carolina after and during Hurricane Florence — resulted in huge amounts of farm and pharmaceutical waste being released into the environment. On North Carolina hog farms, farm waste was stored in such a way that when the farms flooded, it was inevitable that chemical compounds would make their way into the local water system.

Better waste treatment and waste storage methods could prevent future disasters of a similar kind.

But the best possible solution might start with where the drugs are made. It’s possible to design pharmaceuticals so that most of the active compounds will stay in the body, rather than entering the water system. Consumers could push pharmaceutical manufacturers to design their drugs so that more of the active ingredients stay in the body. In Europe, some manufacturers are already designing drugs with pharmaceutical waste in mind. These new drugs should reduce the amount of waste that makes it to the water.

Better Water Filtration

While no water filtration technique can guarantee that 100% of dangerous compounds are captured, new water filtration techniques can help wastewater treatment plants better capture pharmaceuticals and purify our water.

Likely, just one water purification system won’t be enough. Instead, it will take a combination of many different water purification technologies and techniques — some new, some old — to properly bring down the levels of pharmaceutical waste.

There are other solutions being pioneered all the time — and some of them come from unlikely sources.

In one example, a 16-year old from Florida may have discovered a water filtration solution that both strips pharmaceutical compounds from water and can be applied at large scales. The technique uses groupings of small, bead-shaped polymer resins which capture chemicals while letting water pass through. So far, the technique has been confirmed to capture sulfamethazine — an antibiotic that is commonly used in the livestock industry. If implemented in water purification plants, technology like this could have a real impact.

Ideally, both of these solutions would be used at the same time. But even just partial implementations of one idea or the other could have big impacts on the level of waste in our waters and help begin to reduce the presence of unwanted chemical compounds.

How You Can Help

There are also ways that you can take action to reduce pharmaceutical waste in water. Advocating for improved technology at water treatment plants, stricter regulations on agricultural antibiotics and higher water standards can help reduce the levels of waste in our waters.

While most pharmaceutical waste doesn’t enter the water through flushed pills, some of it does. You can participate in drug take-backs or find other ways to dispose of unused antibiotics and pharmaceuticals without putting the environment at risk. The DEA publishes guidelines on how to dispose of pharmaceuticals in a way that should reduce the chance these drugs make their way into the water.

Saving Our Waters From Pharmaceutical Waste

Much of the pharmaceutical waste production is out of the average consumer’s control, and in the hands of governmental bodies, agriculture corporations and drug manufacturers.

Even if you’re not the one writing the rules, you can help save our waters from pharmaceutical waste. You can advocate for better water filtration technology and regulations on the use of antibiotics in agriculture. You can also encourage drug manufacturers to develop new medicine that reduces the amount of waste that makes it to water. And you can take personal steps to ensure that your medication doesn’t add to the levels of pharmaceutical waste already present in our water.

Pharmaceutical waste in water big problem with big impacts. The cost of inaction could be high, but there’s no reason to believe that we can’t capture pharmaceutical waste and clean up our waters.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!

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