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.
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.
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
are ways to sustainably manage the pharmaceutical waste that is already in our
water — and also stop new waste from polluting the environments.
Pharmaceutical Waste Comes From
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Solutions to Pharmaceutical Waste
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.
Pharmaceutical Waste Guidelines
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.
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.
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
waste treatment and waste storage methods could prevent future disasters of a
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.
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.
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.
are other solutions being pioneered all the time — and some of them come from
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.
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
How You Can
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.
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.
Waters From Pharmaceutical Waste
of the pharmaceutical waste production is out of the average consumer’s
control, and in the hands of governmental bodies, agriculture corporations and
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.
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!