A few years back, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey created alarming headlines across the country.
Eighty percent of the streams that scientists sampled were contaminated by pharmaceutical by-products and personal care products. The same prescription and over-the-counter formulations designed to keep us healthy were having the opposite effect on aquatic life.
How do antibiotics, hormones, painkillers and other drugs find their way into our waterways?
First, when pets, farm animals and humans ingest them, our bodies use the part they can and discharge the rest as waste.
Second, for years and years we heard that the safest way to get rid of unused medications was to flush them. Unfortunately, our wastewater systems can’t filter out the thousands of chemicals that make up these products.
Safe Disposal of Unused Medications
Leftover medications, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, shouldn’t sit in the cabinet at home.
Since American pharmacies won’t yet take medications back from their customers, as they do in the Canadian system, San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier found another solution using local resources.
These days, Peninsula residents can walk into police stations in , Brisbane, Burlingame, Daly City, , Hillsborough, Millbrae, , , , San Mateo, and (plus the sheriff’s office in Redwood City and substation in Moss Beach) and simply drop their unused medications in a bin in the lobby. To find addresses for each station, visit the county’s program webpage and click on the city name.
Reducing at the Source
What’s better than doing the right thing with leftover medications? Not having any. By working with our health care providers, we can cut down on what comes into our homes in the first place.
In addition to taking a look at our family’s medication lists, don’t forget that modern medicine prescribes hearty doses of pharmaceuticals for animals as well. You can reduce water contamination from pet waste by talking with your veterinarian about the least-toxic options for pet care and, of course, always putting pet waste in the garbage.
If we buy meat that has been raised in Combined Animal Feeding Operations, or factory farms—and most of us do—we unwittingly provide the water system with a giant dose of antibiotics.
In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of antibiotics in the country are fed to farm animals. Choosing to eat less meat, and to get it from humanely raised, free-range animals, supports local family farms, reduces water pollution and may even help us stay healthy without needing so many medications ourselves.
A mild-mannered civil servant by day, Mary Bell Austin uses her time away from her environmental work for, well, environmental play. Her adventures in healthy eating and her explorations into the wider green world can be found at Bite-size Green. Her column appears biweekly on Saturdays.