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Safe Disposal to Reduce Medicines in the Environment

Pharmaceuticals are polluting our environment. A wide range of drugs have been found in waters, soils, sediments in the Pacific Northwest, including in Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs can keep waste medicines out of our waters.


Medicines in the Environment

Medicines are polluting our environment

Scientists have found medicines in surface, ground and marine waters as well as soils and sediments in the Pacific Northwest.1 Medicines have also been found in over 100 streams sampled across the country.2  Even at very low levels, medicines in the environment hurt aquatic life

We can reduce the amount of medicines going to the environment by taking our unused, leftover medicines to a drug take-back program.  Washington needs a permanently funded take-back program for all of its residents.


girl drinking water - headshotMedicines in drinking water - Are we at risk?

Medicines have been found in the drinking water of 24 major metropolitan cities.3  Some frequently detected compounds were atenolol (heart medication), carbamazepine (mood-stabilizer), gemfibrozil (anti-cholesterol), meprobamate (tranquilizer), naproxen (over-the-counter pain reliever), phenytoin (anti-seizure medication), sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprinm (antibiotics).

When medicines are flushed or thrown in the garbage they can get into our local waters. Some communities use these same water sources for their drinking water. 

It’s unknown what impact low levels of medicines in the environment have on human health. Taking your medicines to a take-back program can reduce the amount of medicines getting into our waterways and our drinking water. 

Meds in the Environment - drain pipeHow do unwanted medicines get into the environment?

About one-third of medicines sold to households in Washington go unused every year -that amounts to about 33 million containers per year.4  Unwanted medicines that aren’t properly disposed can get into the environment by: 

Flushing:  Flushing drugs down the toilet sends them directly into our water supply, harming families and the environment. Most medicines are not removed by wastewater treatment processes or septic systems. 

Garbage:  Medicines thrown in the garbage are chemically active and can still get into the environment. They can also be found by children or pets. 

Other Sources of Medicines in the Water


When medicine take-back programs are not available, residents are forced to dispose of their medicines in ways that hurt our local environment.  Dispose of medicines the right way –  take them to a medicine take-back location. Washington State needs a statewide medicine take-back program.   More studies....



What You Can Do Now


1 Johnson, A., et al., (2004).  Results of a Screening Analysis for Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater Treatment Plant Effluents, Wells and Creeks in the Sequim-Dungeness Area No. 04-03-051) Washington State Department of Ecology; Nilsen, et al. USGS. (2007). Pharmaceuticals and personal care products detected in streambed sediments of the lower Columbia River and selected tributaries

2 Kolpin, D.W., et al. (2002) Pharmaceuticals, hormones and other organic wastewater contaminants in U.S. streams, 1999-2000: A National Reconnaissance.  Environmental Science & Technology, 36(6), 1202-1211.

3 AP Investigation: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water.

4 Estimates for unused containers of medicines in Washington state for 2009 were compiled from: Bush, P.J., Sanz, E.J. & Garcia, M. (1996).  Section II: Cross cultural reports. Medicines at Home:  the Contents of Medicines Cabinets in Eight Countries.  In Children, Medicines, and Culture.  New York, Pharmaceutical Products Press; Kaiser Family Foundation, State Health Facts. (2009). Total Number of Retail Prescription Drugs Filled at Pharmacies. Available online at:; Consumer Healthcare Products Association. (2009). Over-the-counter Retail Sales. Available online at:; Note: Mail-order prescription sales and over-the-counter drugs sales from Wal-Mart were omitted from this calculation due to the lack of available industry data.

Pharmaceuticals detected in the environment

"There's no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they're at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms."

Mary Buzby, director of environmental technology for Merck & Co. Inc., in USA Today, March 10, 2008.  "AP: Drugs found in drinking water".    Read more

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