Environmental Impact of Drugs in Landfills

Written by Benjamin Mandel
February 23, 2023
a hand holding a pack of pills, drug disposal in landfills

Unused, unwanted, expired and even illegal street drugs have in past years been flushed down toilets, sink drains, and even into sewer lines. However, the impact of drugs on the environment and how they affect landfills has been under increased scrutiny over the past decade, and while research is still ongoing, the statistics are alarming.

Drugs and pharmaceuticals in landfills have the potential to damage and influence plant life, animal life, and the soil itself. Recent reports and studies have brought worldwide attention to the negative impact that improper drug disposal has not only on the environment, but the general population.

In spite of growing attention and regulations for more secure pharmaceutical and drug disposal options, an alarming volume of drugs still make it to landfills, often causing damage in scope that many are unaware of.


What is being done about drugs in landfills?


In recent years, pharmaceutical waste management policies have been updated to protect against damage caused by the exposure of pharmaceuticals in the environment. One major change, known as the Sewer Ban, was passed in August 2019 by the EPA as an amendment to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which regulates the disposal of hazardous waste, including hazardous pharmaceuticals. The rule that drugs are no longer (with certain exceptions) to be flushed down toilets or sink or sewer drains.

While the sewer ban is helping to prevent the negative impacts of drugs in waterways, unused or expired pharmaceuticals medications are still discarded in landfills in many locations throughout the United States and the world. One reason for this is that many wastewater treatment plants are not constructed nor equipped to effectively remove drug contaminants from liquids, so that waste is sent to a landfill.

In order to understand the negative impacts of this, it’s first important to understand the concept of “Leachate,” which in the context of landfills, is liquid that collects and drains through the landfill, gradually accumulating contaminants and compounds, which is then carried to other locations as drainage in one form or another.

Pharmaceutical companies tend to believe that the trace amounts of pharmaceuticals found in leachate and even that of processed water from treatment plants are too small to pose a danger to drinking water safety. However, the same may not be true for the environment and wildlife.


What happens to drugs in landfills?


The negative environmental impact of drugs in landfills can trigger a domino effect that might not be seen with the human eye, but can produce a number of unexpected and unwanted results. In scenarios across the country, disposal of drugs in landfills, including antibiotics, gradually make their way into localized soil in environments through leakage and leachate. In other words, leachate, whether it comes from external sources such as groundwater, surface drainage, or rainfall, is contaminated.

Studies from around the world have sought to determine the negative influence of pharmaceutical as well as personal care and hygiene products on the environment, primarily caused by leachate.

In 2016, leachates from nearly two dozen landfills in 12 states were examined. Approximately 190 “contaminants of emerging concern” (CECs) – including pharmaceuticals – ­were found in every sample. Within those samples, researchers found traces of 43 prescription drugs and a handful of steroid hormones. Among them included local anesthetics like lidocaine, as well as muscle relaxants and anticonvulsants.[1]

Another study conducted in 2016 determined that approximately 26 pharmaceutical residues were found in rural, municipal landfills. Among the pharmaceuticals investigated in that study were MDMA, ampicillin, amphetamines, diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory cream to treat arthritis pain), and gemfibrozil (cholesterol drug). It was also determined that the treatment plants and those localities were not able to effectively filter out pharmaceuticals.[2]

According to a 2021 article published in the Journal of Environmental Management, landfills around the country have become a “significant” source of pollutants to ground and water. While landfills are typically monitored for contaminants in leachate, the growth of the use of drugs as well as their types is not fully comprehensive. In addition, drugs and their compositions as well as potential toxicity can change over time and is not consistent, depending on the landfill.[3]


What does all this mean?


The remnants of pharmaceuticals found in landfills that escape through leachate have a very serious and negative environmental impact. A number of studies have determined that such chemical byproducts can change the reproductive, growth, and behavioral aspects of a variety of fish and frog species.

Contaminants that leach into surrounding soil can then be picked up by birds and transported dozens if not hundreds of miles away along migratory patterns. Recent studies have been conducted in an attempt to determine the severity and potential of drugs in landfills that affect near and distant environments.

Recently, researchers identified approximately 150 drugs used in human and veterinary services whose “footprint” were found in trace quantities as far as the Arctic Circle. It is believed that approximately 4,000 drugs used in human and animal treatments eventually make their way into the environment, affecting wildlife, fish, and birds that can carry contaminants hundreds of miles away onto other landscapes and waterways in their environments.[4]


Bottom line


It is essential to reduce pharmaceutical and over-the-counter drug waste from landfills sooner rather than later. New drug disposal container designs and elements that effectively break down drugs at the source are growing increasingly popular. Secure a Drug is dedicated to reducing the potential for drug diversion or inadvertent and accidental drug exposure to the general population as well as to relieving the impact that such waste can potentially have on long-term environmental landscapes, flora, and fauna.

For more information on Secure a Drug and how to safely dispose of pharmaceuticals in home or medical care scenarios, contact us today.

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26562222/
[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27026494/
[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479721000931?via%3Dihub
[4] https://dualdiagnosis.org/the-environmental-impact-of-growing-drugs/