Safe Disposal to Reduce 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. A recent study found that Salmon in the Puget Sound had high levels of variety of contaminants of emerging concern (CEC’s) accumulated in their tissue including hormones, opiates, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.3

We can reduce the amount of medicines going to the environment by taking our unused, leftover medicines to a drug take-back program.

Medicines in drinking water – Are we at risk?

Medicines have been found in the drinking water of 24 major metropolitan cities.4 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.

How 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.5 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.


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 Meador, J. P., Yeh, A., Young, G., & Gallagher, E. P. (2016). Contaminants of emerging concern in a large temperate estuary. Environmental pollution213, 254-267.

4 AP Investigation: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water.

5    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. (2017). Total Number of Retail Prescription Drugs Filled at Pharmacies. Available online at:; Consumer Healthcare Products Association. (2017).