A taste of our own medicine
Safely disposing of unused pills can have a positive effect on the environment
Nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription medication. That’s not including all the over-the-counter drugs we consume, for everything from headaches to sleepless nights, or the medications we give our pets. But, unless we take every pill in every bottle, there are some left over. So what do we do with our unused or expired medications? Flushing them is not the answer. But neither is throwing them in the trash. Either way, they’ll end up in the environment and could affect wildlife and aquatic species.
“The best thing to do is bag ’em up and bring them down to your household hazardous waste facility,” said Jennifer Arbuckle, recycling and public outreach coordinator for Northern Recycling and Waste Services. That’s because medications are considered hazardous waste, even though there are no disposal requirements for households (only for medical facilities).
“If you throw them in the trash, they’ll end up in the landfill,” Arbuckle said. “They might be trapped in the landfill for a while, but they will eventually leach out into the environment.”
The bigger problem is adding them to our water supply. Many people view the toilet as a trash-can alternative, a way to get rid of things with immediate results—but that is far from the truth. Just take a tour of the city’s Water Pollution Control Plant, out on Chico River Road, to see what happens after you flush. (Yes, tours are available, but call ahead, 894-4300.)
“Everybody thinks that the toilet is the dispose-all, the end for everything,” said Marc Sulik, wastewater treatment manager for the city of Chico. “They assume that when they flush it, it’s gone. But it’s not gone—it ends up here.”
In the approximately 30 years Sulik has worked at the wastewater treatment plant, he’s just about seen it all. When toilets are used as trash cans (and even when they’re just used as toilets), things can get messy. But sometimes it’s the invisible things that make his job complicated.
“At our treatment plant, which is very conventional, we can remove particulate matter and organic matter very well,” he said. “But we don’t have the ability to specifically remove certain chemical compounds.”
What Sulik is talking about is medications, personal-care products, household cleaners—anything that ends up at the treatment facility in liquid form. While certain filtration methods do lower the amounts of chemical compounds that come out at the plant’s back end (the Sacramento River), there is no specific filter for these compounds or any regulation overseeing them.
Sulik pointed to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has several studies in the works regarding pharmaceuticals and personal-care products in our water.
“There’s concern because they’ve started detecting compounds in our rivers and lakes and they don’t really know what effects that’ll have on aquatic life,” Sulik said. “Some compounds can possibly disrupt the life cycles of aquatic species.”
The problem is, Sulik said, it typically takes at least a decade of testing before true results are known and new policies are put in place—and many of the studies currently underway are still in their infancy.
“In the last 20 years, the personal care product industry has really taken off,” Sulik said. “And these days, we seem to have a treatment for every ailment—we love drugs as a society. Some of these compounds didn’t even exist 10 years ago.”
Add to that the fact that the technology for testing for these compounds also has advanced over the years. The Chico facility is considered a “secondary” wastewater treatment plant. That is a step up from primary, Sulik explained, and one below tertiary. Most plants in the United States, especially those that feed into rivers and streams, are secondary facilities, and they do not have the ability to treat water for the chemicals found in pharmaceuticals and personal-care products.
“We do a very good job at the secondary level,” Sulik said. “But probably in the next 20 years or less we’ll be required to expand into a tertiary plant—because of this type of thing right here.”
Studies do show that even when we take medicines they end up in our waste water. Some even point to hormones in particular—such as those found in birth-control pills—as causing male fish to take on female characteristics.
“When we take medications, our bodies absorb them and there are still residuals [that end up in the water],” Sulik said. “But it’s so much less significant than someone taking a bottle of pills and dumping it down the toilet.”
Chico’s Water Pollution Control Plant is working on better outreach to alert the public to where their water goes when it leaves their homes. The hope is that, if people are more aware that the water ends up in the Sacramento River, they’ll be more conscious of what they send down the pipes.
That’s why the plant is promoting the National Prescription Drug Take-back Day on April 26, when people can dispose of unused medications at central locations.
“In the future, we will probably have some additional treatment system to treat the water for other compounds,” Sulik said. “But in the meantime, the best way to mediate is at the source.”
The water Chicoans use in their homes and businesses is groundwater. It’s contained in the large water towers that can be seen around town, and then enters our homes via pipes and gravity. Once we’re done with it, though, it leaves via one of three “trunk lines”—large pipes—that lead to the wastewater treatment plant west of town. Once it arrives there, it goes through several treatment processes to rid it of debris and waste and make it clean enough by EPA standards to re-enter our waterways. Then it gets pumped into the Sacramento River and heads downstream, where it becomes habitat for fish and other species and drinking water for communities like Colusa and Sacramento.
So, while studies are pending regarding the ultimate effect of pharmaceuticals in our water, Sulik said the safest thing to do is minimize that effect by safely disposing of unused or expired meds rather than flushing them.
“We all seem to think that just one flush isn’t going to matter,” Sulik said. “But you have to add it all up—if everyone is a little more conscious, it is possible to actually have an impact and reduce the amount of pollutants in our water.”