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07.15.09

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Flush Not

Old medications belong anywhere but in our waterways

By Juliane Poirier


Decades ago, North Bay toilet-flushing etiquette was revised to accommodate a severe water shortage. As the next shortage approaches, evolving etiquette says don't even think about flushing drugs down the can. They will not really go away. The water supply is already diminishing under increasing demands, so the concentration level of pharmaceuticals is rising. Meds in the waterways have contributed to genetic aberrations in water organisms.

Some of us remember this political cartoon: two trout are underwater below a discharge pipe labeled "Rx waste." One trout says to the other, "The Viagra in the water is making me want to swim upstream, but the Prozac is making me too tired." Laughter here should be of the nervous sort.

The tricky thing about all the free pharmaceuticals we're getting in our water is not being able to choose which drugs we want and how much we want to absorb. Ask any frog about what full immersion in untreated public waterways is like, and he or she will point a webbed finger at some nearby offspring with hermaphroditic organs. George Washington could never have predicted when he crossed the Potomac that one day the waterway would contain such high concentrations of pharmaceutical compounds that a new American bass now swims under the boats there—the "intersex" fish—males bearing eggs.

An estimated 40 million people in this country are drinking water contaminated by trace amounts of chemical goodies from anti-seizure medication to psychotropic drugs. Whether it gets passed first through someone's urinary tract or whether it gets dumped directly in pill, powder, liquid or capsule form from one of those ubiquitous plastic containers with the child-proof caps, drugs go into the water we will be drinking later.

The most sophisticated water-treatment facility is not capable of removing all traces of drugs from the water because many of the chemical compounds are not broken down during treatment and are thus often released back into the waterways. That water eventually gets back to the tap—or even to that bottle of water with the misleading label and the extra dose of mystery chemicals from the plastic.

Bummer. But don't reach for the antidepressants yet—there's more. The global pharmaceutical market is expected to reach $930 billion in three years. A lot less funny than cartoon trout on Prozac is the reality of uncounted species from trout to children exposed to cell-changing drugs in waterways. Weird stuff flushed into waters is stirring up a witch's brew everywhere. Of 38 samples of wastewater analyzed in France last year, 31 demonstrated the ability to mutate genes. Eighty percent of 139 waterways sampled in the United States contained pharmaceutical compounds.

In this country, an estimated 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals get flushed each year by medical facilities. The EPA belatedly named pharmaceuticals a pollutant of concern, but nobody goes out and checks the concoctions.

In a country where at this writing billions of dollars are being spent to defeat healthcare reform of any sort, one cannot expect drug companies to pay for environmental damages.

But up north where there is medical coverage for all citizens, pharmaceutical companies are being forced by law to clean up after themselves and pay for the pollution caused by the products they manufacture.

In western Canada, legislation cuts into the profits of pharmaceutical companies by placing the burden back on the manufacturers. There, drug companies have to take back and pay for the proper disposal of unused pharmaceuticals.

Until Americans can accomplish such a legislative feat, citizens can at least keep their old medicines out of the toilet and the waterways by delivering them to a drop-off site. For a list of drop-off sites in Sonoma County, go to www.scwa.ca.gov/projects/safe_meds.php.

For locations in Napa County, call 707.258.6000; and for locations in Marin, go to www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/CD/main/comdev/ehs/waste/sharps_drop-off__locations.cfm. And make sure you ask your favorite hospital, hospice worker, nursing facility or clinic how they dispose of old medicines.

 

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