Even Drugs Thrown in the Trash Can End Up in Your Drinking Water

trash, garbageThe federal government advises throwing most unused or expired medications into the trash instead of down the drain, but they can end up in the water anyway, a study from Maine suggests.

Tiny amounts of discarded drugs have been found in water at three landfills in the state, confirming suspicions that pharmaceuticals thrown into household trash are ending up in water that drains through waste, according to a survey by the state's environmental agency that's one of only a handful to have looked at the presence of drugs in landfills.

Concerns have grown in recent years over pharmaceuticals reaching drinking water supplies. An Associated Press investigation in 2008 reported that the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans contains minute concentrations of a multitude of drugs.

It's commonly believed that the vast majority of drugs that get into water supplies come from human and animal excretion and that smaller amounts come from flushing them down the toilet or drain, a practice the Food and Drug Administration says is not recommended for most medications.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

It’s nothing new that the waterways in the United States contain residues of birth control pills, antidepressants, painkillers, and many other chemical compounds. This has been known for many years now.

However, most of them enter water supplies from human and animal waste that enter rivers from sewage treatment plants, leach into groundwater from septic systems, or runoff into groundwater.

Now it’s becoming clear that drugs are entering drinking water supplies from other sources as well, including the drugs you toss into your trash bin.

This is the disposal method recommended by the U.S. government, as it was thought to pose less of an environmental threat than flushing them down the toilet. Of course, your trash is by no means a sealed package, so when it enters a landfill its contents can and do mingle with other trash and its surrounding environment.

Water that drains through landfills, known as leach rate, eventually ends up in rivers. And although not all states source drinking water from rivers, many do.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection found that landfill water in the state was contaminated with tiny amounts of numerous medications, including:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen (the most prevalent drugs detected)

  • Antidepressants

  • Birth control pills

  • Blood pressure medications

  • Cholesterol drugs

Health Risks from Pharmaceutical Pollution

The drug industry, while admitting that pharmaceuticals are clearing contaminating water supplies, maintains that the levels are too low to cause any harm. Yet, it’s known that drugs in waterways can harm fish and other aquatic species, and laboratory studies show human cells do not grow normally when exposed to even trace amounts of certain drugs.

Other potential concerns include:

  • Some people are now exposed to traces of multiple drugs at one time, in addition to other harmful metals and chemicals in their water

  • Many drugs in the water supply are known to have dangerous side effects when taken in normal prescription doses

  • Drugs that were only intended for external application will now be ingested and vice versa

  • Some individuals are allergic to drugs found in the water supply

  • People are exposed to combinations of drugs that should never be combined

  • Pregnant women are also being exposed to drugs that could potentially harm an unborn child

As reported in New Scientist, a comprehensive survey of U.S. drinking water revealed the 11 most frequently detected toxic pharmaceuticals overall were:

  • Atenolol, a beta-blocker used to treat cardiovascular disease

  • Atrazine, an organic herbicide banned in the European Union which has been implicated in the decline of fish stocks and in changes in animal behavior

  • Carbamazepine, a mood-stabilizing drug used to treat bipolar disorder

  • Estrone, an estrogen hormone secreted by the ovaries and blamed for causing gender changes in fish

  • Gemfibrozil, an anti-cholesterol drug

  • Meprobamate, a tranquilizer used in psychiatric treatment

  • Naproxen, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory linked to increases in asthma incidence

  • Phenytoin, an anticonvulsant used to treat epilepsy

  • Sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic

  • TCEP, a reducing agent used in molecular biology

  • Trimethoprim, another antibiotic

Despite extensive purification treatments used by water companies, traces of bleomycin, a cancer chemotherapy drug, and diazepam, a sedative, have also been found in the drinking water.

Drug Companies Oppose a Safer Way to Dispose of Unused Drugs

Due to the new findings in Maine, lawmakers in the state are considering a new bill, one of the first of its kind in the United States, that would provide a safer way to dispose of unused drugs.

The bill would require drug manufacturers to develop and pay for a program to collect residents’ unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs and safely dispose of them.

At least six states are currently considering such “take-back” programs, which are, not surprisingly, being opposed by the drug industries.

As it stands, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies have released the following guidelines for “safely” disposing of drugs:

  • Throw most drugs in the trash after crushing them or dissolving them in water, mixing them with kitty litter, coffee grounds or other unappealing materials, and placing the mixture in a sealed plastic bag.

  • Remove and destroy any prescription labels before throwing away the containers.

  • In some states, pharmacies can take back medications. When in doubt, you should ask your pharmacist for advice.

Of course, some of these suggestions merely move the environmental peril from one place to another -- such as diluting medicines in water and mixing them in garbage that eventually ends up in a landfill near you anyway.

And even if drug companies are forced to take responsibility for disposing of unused drugs, who will police them to make sure they are doing so safely? After all, drug companies have historically been among the worst polluters in the world!

The best way to reduce environmental drug pollution is also the simplest and most obvious -- Take Control of Your Health by cutting down the number of drugs you take in the first place.

Of course, to curb the pollution problem drug use will also have to be greatly reduced among livestock and other animals in our food supply, so do your part by supporting those food sources that do not treat their animals with antibiotics and other drugs.

The Secret to a Safe Water Supply

Many municipalities are allowing their residents to drink contaminated water, and only a tiny fraction of the violations will be caught and enforced. What this means is that you have got to take the safety of your drinking water into your own hands. Do not wait for your local, state or federal government to do it for you, as you may be causing irreparable damage to your health in the meantime.

So how can you secure safe water for yourself and your family?

Your best source of water is having an artesian well in your backyard, as that is some of the finest water in the world. Very few people are fortunate enough to have this, however.

Fortunately, the alternative to having pure water is simple: use a high-quality filter for your home, including for your tap water and your shower.

My personal favorite, and the one I personally use, is a high-quality reverse osmosis (RO) filter. You just need to add a few minerals back to the water, but the water is far superior to distilled water. RO reliably removes virtually every possible contaminant that could be in the water.

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