Environmental Impact of Drugs in Waterways

Written by Benjamin Mandel
November 8, 2021

The environmental impact of drugs on waterways is not to be underestimated, even with enhanced regulations from federal and state governments. Improper disposal practices of pharmaceutical wastes containing contaminants, drug byproducts, and pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs) continue to wreak havoc on aquatic environments around the world.


What types of drugs are making their way into groundwater?


The Groundwater Consortium has determined that while the quality and purity of most city and town ground-based water supplies are much cleaner than they used to be, the effects of some pharmaceuticals such as over-the-counter medicines, veterinary medicines, and prescription drugs still pose dangers to fish and wildlife that utilize groundwater sources as well as creeks, streams, and lakes.

It’s common knowledge that wastewater plants are expected to purify and filter out waste products from water sources, but many are not designed, and are incapable of filtering out numerous components of personal care products and medicines that continue to be flushed down toilets, sinks, or drains. As a result, and depending on severity, such contamination can negatively affect our drinking water.


Advancements in environmental quality


Today, few pharmaceuticals are found in groundwater used for drinking purposes, according to a recent United States Geological Survey (USGS) study.[1] However, the study notes that samples taken from just over 1,000 sites, representing approximately 60% of the volume used for drinking water supplies, contained approximately 103 pharmaceuticals and 21 hormones. Three of the most prevalent pharmaceuticals included carbamazepine (an anti-seizure medication), meprobamate (an anti-anxiety medication), and sulfamethoxazole (an antibiotic). Identification of such contaminants were most commonly found in shallow wells and continue to expose groundwater to such contaminants.

In early 2021, USGS scientists discovered a number of organic chemicals in streams throughout the US with the potential to negatively affect aquatic life and organisms. The scientists assessed 305 small streams throughout the US and detected a mixture of two or more organic compounds in 303 of them. According to the subsequent study, “The chemical mixtures measured presented a moderate risk of acute toxicity—mortality—at 44% of sites for aquatic invertebrates, which include stoneflies and mini-crustaceans. For nonvascular plants, which include some algae and are a key part of the aquatic food chain, there was a moderate risk of acute toxicity at 20% of sites. The mixtures presented a moderate risk of sub-lethal effects to vertebrates—organisms, such as fish and salamanders, with a backbone—at 99% of sites.”[2]

Even today, decades after the introduction of environmental practices designed to prevent pollution in waterways, groundwater, and other water sources throughout the country, new contaminants have emerged. As in days past, water treatment plants are incapable of trapping or removing many of these chemicals. Ultimately, they end up in streams, rivers, and lakes throughout the country.

According to the USGS, prescription as well as non-prescription drugs, hygiene products, and products that contain chemical additives are noted to be “contaminants of emerging concern,” especially in regard to their effects on aquatic organisms and life forms.

Concerns regarding the negative of impact on aquatic life, such as unusual fish behaviors, have been studied and assessed in recent years. In one study by St. Cloud State University, in conjunction with USGS scientists, adult fathead minnows were exposed to treated wastewater effluents in an effort to ascertain the effects of such pharmaceuticals on fish populations.

The fish in the study were exposed to a variety of pharmaceuticals, such as sleeping aids, muscle relaxants, opioids, and antidepressants. The results? Juvenile minnows displayed unusual escape behaviors and reduced growth. Adult female minnows experienced an increase in their liver size (a common reaction to pharmaceutical exposure), while males “did not defend their nests as rigorously” and also displayed production of a protein associated with egg production in females.[3]

Such studies can enhance the development and improvement of current water management practices and regulations in regard to the environmental impact of improperly discarded pharmaceuticals. Research continues in a variety of facilities to determine the effects of hormones found in stream waters on harmful algae blooms.

A 2017 study highlighted that approximately 118 pharmaceuticals were found in samples of drinking water from 25 treatment plants in the US.[4] While reductions in concentration of a variety of pharmaceuticals have been noted, some still exist and can result in human exposure following treatment.


Regulations continue to improve drug disposal processes


The EPA began regulating pharmaceuticals and improper disposal of them in 2009. Additional regulations introduced in 2015 specifically focused on hazardous waste pharmaceuticals. For example, the EPA discourages use of burn barrels to destroy household pharmaceuticals in commercial or residential settings, prohibited under regulations found in 40 CFR, §257.3-7(a). Doing so can produce emissions, especially in take-back programs or similar destruction processes that can release a number of pollutants into the air and cause adverse health effects.

A pharmacy, a hospital, or any other business that produces pharmaceutical waste is not allowed to use any community take-back programs to dispose of unused, unwanted, or expired pharmaceuticals. Such facilities must follow federal and state guidance in pharmaceutical waste management processes, which includes the regulations for hazardous waste management and disposal where applicable. Guidance document for such are found on the EPA website here.


Strategies to reduce risk of pharmaceutical contamination to the environment


According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), even small concentrations of pharmaceutical contaminants that leach into the environment can produce negative and unintended consequences on water ecosystems. Increased monitoring may prove effective in developing programs that keep pharmaceuticals out of water, although the ongoing costs of such monitoring initiatives are still being explored.[5]

Considerations of risks, recurrence rates, and potential toxicity to environmental and human health continue to be analyzed, as well as the potential development of advanced wastewater treatment facilities.

On a smaller scale, new technologies and strategies are being implemented to prevent drug diversion practices by manufacturing products that break down pills, capsules, or tablets and render them unusable. Such containment systems, such as those manufactured by Secure a Drug, are then treated and legally disposed of in compliance with federal and state regulations by experienced pharmaceutical waste management and disposal companies.


Do your part


It is responsibility of every person and facility producing or using pharmaceuticals to take proper measures and steps to reduce the risk of contamination and environmental pollution. That means properly destroying and disposing of pharmaceuticals, including over-the-counter drugs medications and health products, according to all federal, state, and local regulations. For more information on how to safely dispose of drugs, contact Secure a Drug today.

[1] https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70205300

[2] https://www.usgs.gov/center-news/chemical-mixtures-are-common-small-streams-us?qt-news_science_products=1#qt-news_science_products

[3] https://www.usgs.gov/ecosystems/environmental-health-program/science/complex-mixtures-complex-responses-using?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969716305551?via%3Dihub

[5] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/c936f42d-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/c936f42d-en