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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

What Goes Down Comes Around

Air Date: Week of

According to officials-- not a trashcan. (Photo: Daniel Greene)

According to a recent report, hospitals and long-term care facilities dump up to 250 million pounds of drugs down the drain every year. Ben Grumbles of the Environmental Protection Agency joins host Bruce Gellerman to discuss pharmaceutical flushing and what to do with your dated medication.


GELLERMAN: Here’s a sound and a statistic that may give you cause for concern.


GELLERMAN: According to an investigative report by the Associated Press, Americans flush a quarter of a billion pounds of drugs and contaminated packaging down the drain every year. To draw public attention to the problem, the U.S EPA and California named this: “No Drugs Down the Drain” week. Ben Grumbles is the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water.

GRUMBLES: There’s growing awareness that the toilet isn’t a trashcan, and that it’s important to protect the environment and properly dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals.

GELLERMAN: But, in fact, part of the problem is the federal government’s own regulation. It requires that labels on narcotic painkillers tell people to flush unused pills down the drain. Another problem - not all drugs are fully metabolized by the body and are excreted. Still, according to the AP investigative report, most of the 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals going down drains comes from the nation’s hospitals and long-term care facilities. Whatever the source, the EPA’s Ben Grumbles says, the drugs can eventually wind up in our drinking water:

GRUMBLES: For decades, pharmaceuticals in very tiny trace amounts have been sent to wastewater plants and may also appear in lakes and streams at extremely small amounts in the parts per trillion.

GELLERMAN: Well these amounts as you note are in minute concentrations, but these are some very toxic and very powerful drugs. I mean you have anti-cancer drugs, you have antibiotics, you’ve got drugs that mimic hormones – in fact, drugs that are hormones.

GRUMBLES: Well, we know several things. One is that in therapeutic doses, those types of contaminants could pose a risk to the environment, to fish and wildlife, which can be very sensitive. We are very concerned about potential impacts on aquatic life. We know enough, we have enough information, to know that there are actions we can take. And one very important action we’re taking is to significantly expand the scope of the science and the surveys to see just how much of these tiny, truly tiny trace amounts are in the environment. But the really key part is to get new information, as much as we can, on whether there are any risks to human health. And the most important thing right now is to be spreading the word about proper disposal of pharmaceuticals. The toilet is not a trashcan. And also working with communities providing grants or outreach and awareness programs so that there can be community collections, take back programs for unused and unwanted pharmaceuticals.

GELLERMAN: I know that there is a pilot takeback program. Where is it?

GRUMBLES: We’ve got several across the whole country. About three or four months ago, EPA working with states and cities across the Great Lakes region conducted a massive take back program for pills which netted millions and millions of pills that might have otherwise entered into the environment through toilets or through sewer systems.

GELLERMAN: It was coincidental, but just this morning I was going through some old pills that I had in my medicine cabinet and thinking, you know, what do I do with these things?

GRUMBLES: Well, based on our guidance right now, I would say a couple things. One is don’t flush it down the toilet. The other approach is to secure it in the trash and mix it with unwanted or – kitty litter or coffee grinds. We also are looking at incineration as one other mechanism for the waste that does get taken to a landfill or separating it out. We’re looking at reverse distribution systems – that’s kind a term of art that’s meant to help encourage the return of unwanted or unused pharmaceuticals either to the pharmacies or from the pharmacies to the actual manufacturers for proper disposal, which may mean incineration.

(Photo: Daniel Greene)

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Grumbles, I want to thank you very much.

GRUMBLES: Thank you very much. Thanks for your great questions and we’ll stay in touch. Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Ben Grumbles is the Assistant Administrator for Water at the U.S. EPA.



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