Drugs in the Water (And Ways to Prevent that from Happening)

Last month’s national drug takeback day was more popular than ever. Antibiotic-resistant genetics have been found in California wetlands. FDA seeks voluntary disclosure of antibiotics in animal feed.

Twice a year, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) holds a national “takeback” day where citizens can drop off their expired or unwanted medications for proper disposal. Since the first collection day in September 2010, each event has brought in a bigger stash than the last.

Last week, the DEA announced the haul from its April 28 event was a record 250.5 metric tons (552,161 pounds) of medicine cabinet detritus.

infographic data pharmaceutical drug water medication unused
Last summer, I wrote about how some people would rather see permanent takeback programs in place, because an event lasting four hours on a spring Saturday does not fit everyone’s schedule. (A few community- and state-run programs exist, but many lack a reliable source of funding.)
As a remedy, a coalition of public health, law enforcement, and environmental advocates want the pharmaceutical companies, who profit from drug sales, to pay for the disposal programs. But, so far, the pharmaceutical industry is winning the lobbying fight.

There are many reasons to worry about the tons of unwanted medications that are improperly disposed of:

  • Many pills are thrown into the trash or flushed down the toilet, eventually entering waterways.
  • Numerous studies have shown that even minute concentrations of pharmaceuticals can alter the sex characteristics of fish and frogs.
  • There is also the chance that bacteria — once introduced to an environment with low doses of, say, penicillin — will become resistant to the drug’s effect.

Which brings us to this story, out of San Diego.

David Cummings, a microbiologist at Point Loma Nazarene University, has found antibiotic-resistant genes in the wetlands of the Tijuana River Valley.

“Genes that confer antibiotic resistance may in fact pose a more serious long-term public and ecosystem health threat than many pollutants in urban stormwater.”
–Professor David Cummings to U-T San Diego

Researchers at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles have found similar circumstances in wetlands near Los Angeles International Airport.

Now, humans are not the only ones taking drugs. We also feed them in muscle-popping quantities to animals on factory farms, which are another significant source of pharmaceuticals in water bodies. (The science is still uncertain as to the relative percentages.)

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a baby step by asking drug companies to change the marketing and labeling of these “growth-promoting” drug-food concoctions.

Any reductions, however, are voluntary.

–Brett Walton
Circle of Blue reporter

Author: Brett Walton  is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. He writes our Federal Water Tap, a weekly breakdown of U.S. policy. Interests: Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Pricing, Infrastructure.

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