When cleaning out that medicine cabinet in the bathroom, everyone knows what to do with leftover or expired medications: flush them down the toilet, right? Not if you want to live “green” and protect the health of the Puget Sound region’s water supply and ecosystems. Pharmaceutical waste in the water supply is becoming increasingly problematic as our society becomes more medicated. Wastewater treatment plants do not have the capability to remove pharmaceuticals from water, so medications flushed down the drain will end up back in our drinking water, or discharged into the environment. Numerous medications have been detected in the environment at levels high enough to damage fragile ecosystems and the wildlife that depends upon them. These include medications such as hormone-replacement medications, which can interfere with the reproductive systems of wildlife. Careless flushing of antibiotics is worrisome because bacteria in the environment can develop resistance after being exposed to nonlethal concentrations of the drug— potentially giving rise to dangerous new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are a health threat to humans and the environment alike. Also, little is known about the effects of combining so many different medications in the water supply, and whether they will form new and even more harmful compounds when mixed together.
So, what is an ecologically-conscious Seattleite to do with all of those unused medications? The safest method is to return unused medications to a pharmacy and utilize medication take-back programs. Contact your local pharmacy or use the “Take Back Your Meds” directory to find a take-back program in your area before disposing of medications in other ways. If there are no pharmacies in your area that offer take-back programs, the next safest—but still not ideal— option is to mix the unused medication with kitty litter or coffee grounds in a tightly sealed plastic bag, then dispose of it in the garbage. Safe disposal methods may require a little more time on your part, but keeping our local water and ecosystems safe is well worth the effort.