Keep Drugs out of Drinking Water

Frog looking at pills in waterDisposing of old, expired and/or unneeded medications is tricky. You don’t want kids, teens or pets to get a hold of them (or drug abusers for that matter), so you might think the old recommendation to flush them down the toilet is good advice. But this practice solves one problem only to create another. With drugs, it seems, there are always unwanted side effects.

Flushed drugs too often end up in waterways that supply us with water to drink. Water treatment plants don’t neutralize or screen them out, so they turn up in our tap water eventually (and may also be present in some of the bottled waters that come from tap).

A large share of the American public is already affected. According to a 2008 investigation by the Associated Press, drinking water is contaminated with pharmaceuticals for over 40 million Americans in two dozen major metropolitan areas. If other water systems were studied, the number would surely be higher.

What to do? The best solution is to dispose of your unwanted drugs through a take-back program, which will get rid of your medications in a safe, environmentally sound way. If your community doesn’t have an ongoing program, take advantage of National Take Back Day on Saturday, October 29, 2011 when there will be take-back events across the country. For other options, read Safe Disposal of Old Drugs.


Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

, ,

9 Responses to Keep Drugs out of Drinking Water

  1. Sabryna Lefran├žois September 27, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Drug in water??? Oh my god that’s disgusting. People must to react about that for preserve wildlife and water.

  2. Mary C. September 27, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    Thanks for a great article, As a disabled reg. nurse I’ve worked with folks in hospitals, alcohol/addiction settings (inpatient and outpatient), rest homes, home care over the years. Disposal of unused meds was always an issue for the last 30+ years I’ve been a nurse. Back in the late seventies/earely eighties, I was taught that flushing unused, expired, illegal drugs was the way to go. Approximately 1986 (the year my dad died) I learned there was a safer/more environtmently protective way to handle this issue. I’ve been happy to practice and teach this way to family, friends, neighbors, etc. I’m happy to learn there will be a national day to recognize this important issue and I’ll be at my local site with my expired tylenol, etc., and get the word out to others.

    I’d ask my name not be used with these comments. I know occasionally donations are asked for and unfortunately due to my very tight budget from month to month I’m unable to give. However I hope you’ll keep sending the articles; I apperciate them.

    • Sheryl September 27, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

      Thanks, Mary. Glad to hear you’ve been fighting the good fight on this issue. It’s such a big one.

      Just so you know — NRDC does not target fundraising appeals to people who have commented on This Green Life columns or even keep track of who they are. This Green Life is truly a public education service, with no strings attached. I’m happy to hear you find it useful.


  3. Sheridan Phillips September 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    This is a VERY important issue…the full consequences not yet known and to be with us for a long time. Thank you for bringing it to the public forum – not an issue the drug companies and complicit medical establishment will allow to get much press.

    Also NOT receiving press is the immediate issue of the NUCLEAR BOMB FACTORY that could begin construction at Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico with in the month. Information here: Every voice, every article, every letter to a newspaper, blog, congress person is needed IMMEDIATELY. Called the CMRR-FN, this facility would manufacture plutonium “pits” – the “pits” are the TRIGGER for NUCLEAR BOMBS. And at $6 billion+ it means more bombs built than required to destroy the earth – an immoral price to maintain US imperialism. Greg Mello has worked toward defeating this insanity for over 20 years…excellent information at the web site.

    Thank you.

  4. Frances September 28, 2011 at 1:29 am #

    This information should be published repeatedly in national magazines and newspapers to raise awareness of this huge, deadly problem. It should also be broadcast via the media.
    Uninformed, mindless, “convenient” dumping of old or unused medications is poisoning our drinking water ever more. It is also doing the same to fish and wildlife..

  5. Larry October 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    Generally a nice article on common sense for those who do think about what they are doing. However the end comment about putting them in the trash as a last option defeats the purpose by eventually contaminating groundwater.
    I’m not a chemist, but would like to know the environmental hazard burning old drugs in a camp fire would cause in the atmosphere; I suspect some sort of burning method is used by the take back program with the amounts they deal with.

    • Sheryl October 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

      Larry, thanks for your comment. In an imperfect world, you sometimes have to go with the least bad solution. When take-back programs are not available, disposing of the drugs *properly* in the trash may be just that.

      Regarding the disposal method used by take-back programs — these programs are conducted locally, so there is variation among them. But I believe the standard procedure is incineration in a hazardous waste disposal facility with emissions controls. If you are considering availing yourself of a take-back program in your own area, you might want to inquire about the disposal method used. For background on the safest incineration methods, check out these World Health Organization’s guidelines:

  6. Arnie Marrero October 7, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    And PLEASE don’t forget to recycle the glass or plastic containers and closures and hopefully there will be a better way in the near future instead of disposing the unwanted drugs in the landfill which eventually will end up in our drinking water.


  1. Safe Disposal of Old Drugs « Environmental News Bits - September 27, 2011

    […] Read the full post at This Green Blog. Rivers and lakes are awash in pharmaceuticals that end up in our drinking water. How could we ever have thought flushing them away was a good idea? Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post.   Leave a comment […]