Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Don't flush! (your meds)

This has been one of those winters where the flu and cold have run rampant. At the office dozens of people have been out sick and one day at my children’s school 30% of the students were home with the flu.

Along with a busy flu season comes a lot of medication, from prescription antibiotics to over-to-counter cold and sinus medicine. We had our fair share of medicine go through our house this winter, including a prescription change mid-way through pneumonia treatment after my daughter broke out in hives. That left us with a bottle full of Biaxin that couldn’t be used.

What do you do with leftover prescription medications, expired medications or expired over-the-counter drugs? Don’t flush them down the toilet!

Our waterways have enough trouble dealing with medications (prescription and other) that our bodies excrete without having leftover doses washed down the drain as well. Medications can pass through waste-water treatment facilities so trace amounts of prescription drugs (birth control pills, antidepressants, and antibiotics), over-the-counter medications (pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen, and cold/flu remedies), and veterinary medicines have all made their way into our waterways.

It’s unclear if trace amounts of medications in our rivers and lakes are dangerous for humans but there is considerable research documenting the negative impact of medications on aquatic life.

Even in concentrations as tiny as parts-per-trillion the effect on fish and frogs is well documented. A body of research from Ontario has shown that when fathead minnows are grown from egg to adulthood in the presence of as little as three parts-per-trillion of synthetic estrogen (used in birth control pills), they are completely feminized. This means that fewer males are available to mate and to fertilize eggs. (Considering the broader implications of this is a bit scary).

Other drugs have their own worrisome impacts. Steroids can disrupt reproductive processes, anti-depressants make fish tranquil so more vulnerable to predators, and antibiotics in waterways contribute to the growth of antibiotic resistant germs.

Trace levels of pharmaceuticals have also been detected the drinking water of several U.S. cities. No one knows what kind of threat this might pose to humans and that’s a worry, especially when you consider the cumulative effect of long-term exposure to mixtures of pharmaceuticals.

The most important thing you can do to help keep drugs out of our waterways (and our drinking water) is to dispose of them properly. We’re fortunate that our local pharmacies participate in “take-back” programs, taking unused prescription and over-the-counter medications and disposing of them safely. Never flush medications down the toilet or pour them down the drain. Keep them in their package and drop them at your nearest pharmacy when you get the chance.

As well, Health Canada recommends that you go through your medicine cabinet once a year and remove all prescription and non-prescription drugs that are old or that you no longer take. That way you can safely dispose of them all in one trip to the pharmacy.

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