Announcements / Science

What does your medicine cabinet have to do with water quality?

All of us have a medicine cabinet at home, stocked with pharmaceutical drugs – medicines used to treat and/or prevent disease.   The thousands of pharmaceuticals available have helped millions of people live healthier lives.  What many of us don’t know is that many of these medicines can also be found outside of our medicine cabinets, in our lakes and rivers right here in Vermont.

Research in the last decade has shown that surface waters in Vermont and across the country have trace amounts of anti-depressants, birth control medicines, pain relievers and even caffeine.  Medicines are designed to provide more of the active ingredient than our bodies can absorb, meaning that, even when taken correctly, the extra medicine passes through our bodies and down the drain into our sewage disposal systems.   Pharmaceuticals also reach our wastewater when we dispose of extra medicines by flushing them down the toilet.

Scientists have found that our septic systems and sewage treatment plants aren’t always effective at removing pharmaceuticals before the cleaned water is discharged to rivers, lakes or groundwater.  That isn’t surprising since these systems are intended to remove pathogens and nutrients from our waste, not the wide array of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals that we also flush down the drain.

Pharmaceuticals are necessary for good health, but we need to keep them out of the environment.  One way to do this is by not disposing of excess medicines down the drain.  Instead, you can:

  • Return unused pharmaceuticals to a drug take-back center, particularly those that may be linked to substance abuse. These drugs are usually incinerated at specialized facilities.
  • Mix crushed solid and liquid pharmaceuticals with cat litter or coffee grounds, place them in a plastic bag and put them in the trash.
  • Purchase only as much as you can use before the expiration date. Jumbo bottles of acetaminophen can be cost-effective for you but are costly for the environment if most of the capsules are flushed unused down the toilet.

20150918DrugTakeBackThe State of Vermont is participating in the national Drug Take Back Day on September 26.  You can find the disposal site nearest you by going to the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s website.

Learn more:

Lake Champlain is mildly caffeinated

How to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals – US EPA