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Millions of pounds of drugs are discarded into our sewage systems yearly, with troubling consequences

Waste Not…

Imagine how much 100,000 cars weigh.

That’s a lot of cars. And a lot of weight. In fact, it’s about 250 million tons.

Now imagine that much pharmaceutical waste.

According to an Associated Press investigation, hospitals and long-term care facilities dump about 250 million tons of pharmaceutical waste and packaging materials into landfills and sewage systems each year.

And – surprise! – traces of that waste find their way back to us.

Highlights & lowlights

Here are some of the key concerns revealed by the AP investigation:

  • A 2006 survey of long-term care facilities showed that two-thirds of unused drugs were simply dumped into sinks and toilets.
  • Waste from hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes delivers a double whammy of bacteria and antibiotics in large concentrations – and the drug waste from these institutions is much more toxic than typical household drug waste.
  • Small concentrations of pharmaceuticals in U.S. water supplies are “commonplace” and affect more than 45 million consumers.
  • Research suggests that some human cells grow abnormally when exposed to only trace concentrations of certain drugs.
  • Studies have linked hospital drug dumping to the promotion of antibiotic-resistant germs as well as genetic mutations that could play a role in cancer development.
  • Prisons also contribute a significant amount of pharmaceutical waste. A nurse at a Minnesota state prison told the AP that narcotics susceptible to abuse are routinely flushed down the toilet.
  • Drugs put in the trash pose fewer contamination problems, but traces of drugs have been detected in groundwater near landfills.
  • Incineration is probably the most effective way to dispose of drugs, but compared to flushing, this method is inconvenient, costly, and some contaminants still return to the environment in smoke and ash.

Hard to avoid

If you’re already drinking bottled water to avoid chemicals in tap water, you might suppose you’re also avoiding traces of antibiotics and other drugs. And if you’re lucky, you might be right.

A few years ago the Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a four-year lab test of more than 100 brands of bottled water collected from several U.S. states. Researchers found “significant contamination” in about one out of every three brands tested and concluded that many brands are no purer than tap water. About 20 percent of the brands contained synthetic industrial chemicals or chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics.

To be completely sure you’re avoiding traces of drugs, fluoride, and other chemicals, distilled water might be the best way to go. You can read about the pros and cons of drinking distilled water in the e-Alert “Landslide” (6/4/03).

“AP Impact: Tons of Drugs Dumped Into Wastewater” Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza and Justin Pritchard, Associated Press, 9/14/08,
“Bottled Water – Pure Drink or Pure Hype?” Natural Resources Defense Council, 1999,