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Medicines Thrown in the Garbage Can Get into the Environment

Throwing medicines in the garbage can hurt our environment. Medicines have been found in leachate from landfills in Washington, which can end up in local waterways.

Throwing medicines in the garbage does not protect our environment.  Mixing toxic medicines with kitty litter or coffee grounds is an attempt to disguise medicines, but does not treat the medicines.  They are still chemically active and may hurt the environment.

Just as we don’t put used motor oil or leftover paint thinner in the trash, we should not put toxic leftover medicines in the garbage.  Unwanted medicines should be disposed of properly like other household hazardous waste.

How do medicines thrown in the garbage get into the environment?  Several studies have shown that medicines in a landfill can still be released to the local environment.  Medicines have been found in the liquid decomposition – or leachate – landfills.1 In rainy parts of Washington, leachate is pumped out of some landfills.  For example, in King County, 100 million gallons a year of landfill leachate goes to the wastewater treatment plant.  Because wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove medicines, they may be discharged to lakes, streams, rivers and bays.

For this reason, Snohomish County does not allow medicines to be disposed in the garbage, and Kitsap County does not allow residents to throw medicines that designate as household hazardous waste in the garbage.

Medical clinics and hospitals are not allowed to throw most of their medicines in the garbage because they are considered dangerous waste – why should households?

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1. Barnes, K.K., et al. (2004).  Pharmaceuticals and Other Organic Waste Water Contaminants Within a Leachate Plume Downgradient of a Municipal Landfill.  Ground Water Monitoring & Remediation, 24(2), 119;

Behr, R., Stahler, D., Pistell, A.  (2010). Preliminary Characterization of the Pharmaceutical Content of Municipal Solid Waste Landfill Leachate from three landfills in Maine.  Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Accessed 9/3/2010.

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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