City Desk

Don’t Dump Your Meds Down the Drain

Photo Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Photo Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

What do you do with your old, expired medications? Flush them down the toilet, right? Out of sight, out of mind.

But you probably shouldn't do that, as the chemicals will make their way into the local watershed. Which means you may eventually encounter them again—in stranger, and more disruptive, forms.

The problem is complicated. Even if everyone stopped flushing medicine down the drain, our own natural flushing, so to speak, will send those chemicals into the local watershed anyway. Sewage treatment plants can't filter out things like endocrine disruptors, a class of synthetic chemicals that "either mimics or blocks hormones and disrupts the body's normal functions," according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"We are finding these chemicals all over the place," Beth McGee, a senior water quality scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told me last month. "It’s only been in the last 10 years where they have been looking for these chemicals. The next question is what they’re doing. What are the impacts at low levels?"

Seven years ago, male smallmouth bass in the Potomac River and its tributaries upriver from the District were discovered to have eggs in their testes, causing scientists to wonder if it was "the canary in the coal mine" to a much more serious problem. After all, the nation's capital draws its drinking water from the Potomac, but there isn't enough evidence to say for sure what's exactly going on. There are theories, though, including sewage, livestock waste and pharmaceuticals like birth control pills that are thrown down the drain.

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, D.C. Water advises customers to avoid flushing prescription medicine into the local sewage system. But there's never been a coordinated public effort to curb drug-flushing habits.

So what can you do? On Sept. 25, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is holding its first-ever "National Take-Back Initiative," where people can turn-in prescription medications and other controlled substances to help curb their illegal use by those who are not supposed to have them. While the DEA is not pressing the water-quality concerns related to prescription medicine, the local turn-in events are a good way to keep drugs out of the wrong hands and out of the local watershed. The DEA will be incinerating the turned-in medication and won't be flushing them down the drain.

Click here to find turn-in locations, including those at Metropolitan Police Department district stations.

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  • Jamie

    This sounds beyond ridiculous. People pour paint thinner and motor oil down their drains. I have a very hard time believing that some prescription drugs are even 1/1000th of one percent of the problem that industrial and other forms of waste are.

  • blue penn

    The problem is complicated. Even if everyone stopped flushing medicine down the drain, our own natural flushing, so to speak, will send those chemicals into the local watershed anyway
    +++
    I wonder if after having passed through the body and excreted out of our bodies, the meds are not diluted more than they are if dumped directly into the toidy?
    ++++

    The DEA will be incinerating the turned-in medication and won't be flushing them down the drain.
    +++
    I wonder why this isn't done on a regular basis then? Why isn't this promoted as the way to dispose of your meds. Like there could be a sign at pharmacies directing people to their nearest incinerating center.
    +++

    Click here to find turn-in locations, including those at Metropolitan Police Department district stations.
    +++
    That link did not work.

  • Michael E. Grass

    That last link to the turn-in locations should work. If not, try the link off of the larger turn-in page:

    http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/takeback/

  • Charlie

    Thanks for writing about this. I am sort of surprised that there isn't a requirement that pharmacies accept unused medications for disposal.

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