Medical Facilities Flushing Unused Medications into Water Systems

September 16, 2008 08:53 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
An ongoing Associated Press investigation suggests that medical facilities flush millions of pounds of medication into public water systems each year.

Prescription Medicines Found in Drinking Water

The medical profession’s longstanding custom of flushing unused pharmaceuticals down the drain at hospitals and long-term care facilities is causing a problem, according to the Associated Press (AP). Researchers have begun finding trace amounts of medications in the nation’s drinking water supply.

The AP released the first of a series of investigative reports about this issue in March. At that time, the news group stated that approximately 41 million Americans were affected by this practice, but a new story has increased that number to 46 million, writes Martha Mendoza for the Quad-City Times.

These stories prompted many local and federal officials to investigate the problem, and in some cases, test their own drinking water. In 17 instances, places like Reno, Nev., and Savannah, Ga., said they found medicines in their drinking water. Some cities have detected cholesterol medication, tranquilizers and hormones in their water.

Because few medical facilities track how much pharmaceutical waste they create each year, it’s hard to get an accurate picture for the entire United States. However, the AP was able to use a small sampling of information to estimate that the nationwide total is at least 250 million pounds of medicines and contaminated packaging.

Health care facilities generally aren’t violating any state or federal rules by dumping unused medications down the drain. The EPA is presently deciding whether it should restrict how much pharmaceutical waste a medical services facility can discharge into water systems annually. A decision on that matter likely won’t come until next year, one EPA official stated.

In a separate article, Mendoza reported that the present dilemma over how to dispose of pills—at least on a consumer level—could lead to changes in the future, such as creating drop-off programs for discarding unnecessary medications.

Related Topic: What about bottled water?

In March 2008, Seattle joined a growing list of cities that either discourage or ban the use of city funds to buy bottled water. Over the past few years, the city governments of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago have all placed bans or restrictions on using public money to buy bottled water, and other cities and individuals have begun to weigh the financial and health benefits of bottled water versus regular tap water.

Consumer and environmental groups are debating the bottled water issue, too, according to WebMD. Stephen Edberg, a water researcher and professor of medicine at Yale University explained to lawmakers that the chief benefit of bottled water is that it can be sealed, whereas tap water is exposed to “great variability” as it travels from its source to individual homes. This could be advantageous to helping people with compromised immune systems stay healthy.

It’s the cost of these potential benefits that has people like Wenonah Hauter of the consumer group Food and Water Watch voicing her opinion. Depending on the location, bottled water can cost between $8 and $10 a gallon. “Especially today, with the downturn in the economy, people have only so many dollars to spend at the grocery store. And if they're spending that money on bottled water instead of perhaps fruit or vegetables for their family, then we think that's probably not the best decision,” Hauter said in a WebMD article.

Reference: Using and disposing of medication safely


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