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Eco Etiquette: How Can I Fight Prescription Pill Pollution?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Is there a proper way to dispose of prescription drugs? I try to recycle or compost nearly everything, and I feel so guilty about just throwing them in the trash.

-Leigh

So often, being a good citizen of our planet involves a black and white decision: Choose organic over factory-farmed meat; recycle, don't throw out, that soda can; use canvas instead of plastic bags at the grocery store. But what's the green way to dispose of medications? There isn't an easy answer, unfortunately, and you're right to feel guilty about tossing those tablets in the trash: A study just released by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection found that pharmaceuticals are leaching from landfills and into our water supplies, calling into question federal recommendations that unused prescription drugs be thrown in the garbage.

We know that pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, antidepressants, and sex hormones -- have already found their way into the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans, but until the Maine study, the source of contamination wasn't completely clear. One way the drugs end up in drinking water is unavoidable, at present: People ingest drugs, metabolize them, and the trace amounts not absorbed by their bodies are then flushed down the toilet. But meds have also found their way into our water via simple lack of education about proper disposal methods. With all the commercials for Abilify and Viagra, when's the last time you saw a public service announcement telling you the proper way to throw out those unused drugs?

The drug companies, of course, say that these trace levels of pharmaceuticals are too tiny to affect anyone, but I'm not so sure I want to take their word for it: Estrogenic compounds in wastewater have already been shown to feminize male fish. A staggering 3.7 billion prescriptions and 3.3 billion over-the-counter drugs for thousands of different medications are sold in the US every year: That's quite a cocktail of drugs to be so cavalier about.

So what's a responsible green citizen to do with expired and unused medications? And how can we combat the bigger picture issue here, which is pill pollution? Some ideas:

Don't flush. Thanks to Hollywood movies showing on-the-run drug dealers ditching their stashes down the toilet, you'd be surprised how many people do the same with their prescription medications. Unfortunately, flushing drugs is the fastest way to ensure that they end up contaminating our water supply. There are exceptions to the no-flush rule, however: To prevent certain drugs from harming people and pets, the FDA recommends flushing highly addictive drugs like Oxycontin.

Find a community drug take-back program. Maine legislators are working on a bill that would require drug manufacturers to provide collection programs for safe disposal of unused medications. Until other states and/or the federal government follow suit, you can find a take-back program in your area via The Drug Take-Back Network or Earth 911 websites.

Mix, seal, and toss. If you can't find a take-back program, I begrudgingly suggest throwing out medications per federal regulations: Mix them with an undesirable substance like coffee grounds so they won't fall into the wrong hands, place them in a sealable bag to minimize groundwater leaching, and throw the bag in the trash. In this case, I think plastic bags in a landfill are a lesser evil than the public health risk of drugs in our drinking water. (Try to minimize the amount of plastic by placing multiple drugs in the same bag.)

Invest in your health. I'm sure I'll get a lot of emails about this one, since a lot of people rely on prescription medications for their survival (personal disclosure: I take daily medication for hypothyroidism), but how bad does the prescription drug pollution problem have to get before we start examining the root of our nation's ever-expanding appetite for these drugs? The drug companies and their billions of advertising dollars are partly to blame, but so are we: Doctors would prescribe way fewer drugs if people just took better care of themselves. The International Union Against Cancer, for one, says that 40 percent of cancers could be avoided if people just heeded common-sense advice, like stopping smoking and overeating, limiting alcohol consumption, and exercising regularly. It stands to reason that the same recommendation would also apply to other diseases and ailments.

Finally, I'll throw another crazy idea out there: The pharmaceutical companies stand to gain a lot from the current health care legislation; why not throw in a mandatory drug take-back program like the one being considered in Maine? If it turns out that the prescription drug pollution of our water supply is, indeed, linked to serious health risks, then such a law would only further reduce health care costs in the long run.

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