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Just Say No to Drugs in Our Waterways

Leftover medicines can't be flushed away anymore. But everyone can take some simple steps to keep them from polluting our local waters.

A few years back, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey created alarming headlines across the country.

Eighty percent of the streams that scientists sampled were contaminated by pharmaceutical by-products and personal care products. The same prescription and over-the-counter formulations designed to keep us healthy were having the opposite effect on aquatic life.

How do antibiotics, hormones, painkillers and other drugs find their way into our waterways?

Two ways.

First, when pets, farm animals and humans ingest them, our bodies use the part they can and discharge the rest as waste.

Second, for years and years we heard that the safest way to get rid of unused medications was to flush them. Unfortunately, our wastewater systems can’t filter out the thousands of chemicals that make up these products.

Safe Disposal of Unused Medications

Leftover medications, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, shouldn’t sit in the cabinet at home. 

Since American pharmacies won’t yet take medications back from their customers, as they do in the Canadian system, San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier found another solution using local resources.

These days, Peninsula residents can walk into police stations in , Brisbane, Burlingame, Daly City, , Hillsborough, Millbrae, , , , San Mateo, and (plus the sheriff’s office in Redwood City and substation in Moss Beach) and simply drop their unused medications in a bin in the lobby. To find addresses for each station, visit the county’s program webpage and click on the city name.

Reducing at the Source

What’s better than doing the right thing with leftover medications? Not having any. By working with our health care providers, we can cut down on what comes into our homes in the first place.

In addition to taking a look at our family’s medication lists, don’t forget that modern medicine prescribes hearty doses of pharmaceuticals for animals as well. You can reduce water contamination from pet waste by talking with your veterinarian about the least-toxic options for pet care and, of course, always putting pet waste in the garbage.

If we buy meat that has been raised in Combined Animal Feeding Operations, or factory farms—and most of us do—we unwittingly provide the water system with a giant dose of antibiotics.

In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of antibiotics in the country are fed to farm animals. Choosing to eat less meat, and to get it from humanely raised, free-range animals, supports local family farms, reduces water pollution and may even help us stay healthy without needing so many medications ourselves.

A mild-mannered civil servant by day, Mary Bell Austin uses her time away from her environmental work for, well, environmental play. Her adventures in healthy eating and her explorations into the wider green world can be found at Bite-size Green. Her column appears biweekly on Saturdays.

G October 02, 2011 at 07:12 AM
dispose of all of your unused, unwanted, expired medications on October 29, 2011, during DEA's National Take Back Initiative. Visit www.dea.gov for a collection site near you. The program is anonymous no questions asked.
G October 02, 2011 at 07:19 AM
The DEA's National Take Back Event protects lives and the ecosystem by providing citizens a place to safely dispose of all their unwanted or expired medications. Visit www.dea.gov for the nearest collection site for your safe and environmentally friendly disposal of unwanted prescriptions drugs. The date is October 29, 2011, for this Nationwide event! Last April 30, 2011, 121 tonnes of prescription pills was collected and safely disposed of during this event. What a great program. The program is anonymous and no questions asked.
Phyllis McArthur October 02, 2011 at 05:58 PM
In April 2010 parks and rec in Foster City found over 100 used hypodermic needles found in the lagoon, it was reported by the daily journal, then we heard nothing more about it. people were told to stay out of the lagoons especially along the shores where the needles could be caught in the low plants.
Anjessello October 02, 2011 at 10:57 PM
ill, feeding animals antibiotics. That's gross. It's bad enough fish have mercury and people add it to their weekly dinner, thinking they're getting a good dose of fish oil. If this is from a "few years back" and we are getting grossed out by the data, someone should at least get results from "Last Week, Last Month, or Recent Studies." That way we can see what is going on now instead of not knowing. Kind of like, I don't like reading a Sports Illustrated from June 2011.
Maria Pia October 09, 2011 at 06:06 PM
Thank you Patch for article REMINDING folks about no meds in trash, down the toilet . San Bruno Police station (as most do) has a very large, white container/disposal bin in their lobby . The county also has a program/ist for disposal of sharps/needles. http://www.co.sanmateo.ca.us/portal/site/health/menuitem.f44138fe5f6ec63d74452b31d17332a0/?vgnextoid=8c635069590a0210VgnVCM1000001d37230aRCRD&cpsextcurrchannel=1

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