These days, there seems to be a drug for nearly every ailment. While I’m certainly thankful for antibiotics and antihistamines (not to mention norgestimate/ethinyl estradiol), some studies indicate that the pharmaceutical cocktails found in our waterways may harm people and wildlife. To better understand the risks, scientists are investigating whether the trace amounts found in some drinking water supplies affect people—a worthwhile endeavor, given the AP report that found traces of an array of drugs in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas (click here to see a map). And we do know that sex hormones in Colorado’s Boulder Creek have caused some fish to switch sex. Yikes!
To divert more of these substances from wastewater treatment plants and landfills, the EPA has drafted a proposal—the Pharmaceutical Universal Waste Rule—that would change how pharmacies, hospitals, and veterinarians’ and doctors’ offices dispose of hazardous pharmaceutical waste.
(Just to clear up what is and isn’t hazardous in the EPA’s view: “Pharmaceutical” means any chemical product—vaccine or allergenic—not containing a radioactive component and that is intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease or injury or is intended to affect the structure or function of the body in people or animals. Waste pharmaceuticals are hazardous if they exhibit at least one of four characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity.)
According to the EPA, the current regulations, called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requirements, can be difficult to apply (a hospital, for instance, can have hundreds of different kinds of pharmaceutical waste—just think of all the pills, vaccines, etc., and trying to track how they’re disposed of). Furthermore, workers “are often unfamiliar with or confused by RCRA hazardous waste management requirements. In hospitals and other health care facilities, the practice of disposing of pharmaceuticals to sewers has taken place."
The new Pharmaceutical Universal Waste Rule would require pharmacies, hospitals and other “generators” to dispose of hazardous drugs as they would any universal waste (products such as batteries and pesticides); these cannot be flushed down a drain or sent to a landfill, and instead must be properly disposed of at regulated waste facilities. Generators would also be encouraged—but not required—to treat non-hazardous drugs the same way.
The new rule isn’t as strict as the existing regulations. But if it ensures that more people receive training in proper drug disposal and it streamlines the disposal process, as the EPA claims it will, then it seems like it really could help keep meds out of streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Of course, the average Joe can also contaminate water supplies by flushing expired or unneeded drugs down the toilet. If all goes as planned, however, the Universal Waste Rule will help make it easier for people to properly dispose of pills that have been piling up in the medicine cabinet by helping to set up take-back programs. Some communities already have take-back programs, but it would certainly be a boon to the environment if responsibly getting rid of your superfluous meds were as easy as dropping an old jacket off at the Salvation Army or Good Will.