Safe Disposal of Medicines and Preventing Environmental Contamination

Although still undergoing much research, it is clear that chemical pollutants are impacting the environment, animal health, and human health.  Human-made chemicals flow into streams and waterways, and wildlife interacts with these products in unpredictable ways. Pharmaceuticals are in the mix of contaminants arriving from wastewater treatment plants, the drains of manure fertilized fields, washed off livestock farms, and from landfills and septic systems.  Any household or farm product has the potential to become an environmental contaminant. However, one of the bigger concerns, but the easiest to source to reduce, is unused drugs that are flushed down the drain.

The pollutants are dangerous to fish, insects, and other life by killing, preventing reproduction, changing behavior, and altering appearances.  Potential human health concerns are unknown because the pharmaceutical dosage in waterways is low. However, research shows that antimicrobial concentrations in wastewater may be high enough to create selection pressure and harm beneficial microbes.  Antibiotic resistance is also a big concern. Thousands of pharmaceutical compounds, including animal-use drugs, are used in the U.S. Along with current research and studying the ability of wastewater treatment plants to remove pharmaceuticals, we as veterinarians and the clients of veterinarians have a role and responsibility to dispose of unused drugs properly to reduce the risk of environmental contamination as much as possible.

The AVMA and FDA have developed guidance on how to get rid of unwanted drugs.  The best choices for disposal of unused or expired medications are the following:

  • Medicine take-back options

  • Disposal in the household trash

  • Flushing certain potentially dangerous medicines in the toilet

For more information on these options, what is available in your area, and the potential environmental impact of flushing medicines you can read about the FDA's guidelines on safe disposal of medications.

Image c/o Charles Williams on Flickr.