Local News

Flushing meds puts drugs in water supply

Posted May 9, 2011 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2011 7:14 p.m. EDT

— For years, health care professionals have told people to flush their leftover medications down the toilet to keep them away from children and drug abusers.

Research has found, however, that traces of these medications, including antibiotics, hormones and antidepressants, are showing up in rivers and lakes, some of which serve as drinking water supplies. A nationwide study by the U.S. Geological Survey found pharmaceuticals in 80 percent of U.S. streams.

"It's quite clear that some of the estrogens in the environment in aquatic systems have the ability to feminize male fish," said Earl Gray, a researcher with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

USGS research also found that the Yadkin-Pee Dee river basin in North and South Carolina has the highest percentage of fish nationwide with both male and female reproductive organs. Ninety-one percent of largemouth bass in the river basin are so-called intersex fish.

Scientists are concerned about the impact hormones and other pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies could have on humans.

"Most of these pharmaceuticals were designed to produce effects in humans, so we have a pretty good idea of what they might do to humans if the exposure levels were high enough," Gray said.

Sewage treatment plants cannot remove many pharmaceuticals from the wastewater they discharge back into rivers and streams, although researchers are working on new technologies that would help filter them out during the treatment process.

Tess Sanders, the riverkeeper for the White Oak and New rivers, said most of the drugs getting into streams come from human excretion. Still, she said, stopping the practice of flushing drugs is an easy way to eliminate one source of contamination.

"It's still a very, very common practice. It's practiced by health care providers, by hospitals by long-term care facilities," Sanders said. "We absolutely don't want people to flush their drugs."

Since controlled substances can be returned only to law enforcement agencies, Sanders worked with her local sheriff's office to set up a drug take-back program, and she's working to set up permanent drop-off sites for other drugs.

"Everybody knows this is a good idea. It's just finding the methods and getting everybody at the table to find a solution for North Carolina," she said.

Sue Creech of Cary said she hopes officials can devise a system for people to safely dispose of unused medications. She said she's been stuck with diabetes drugs that she no longer needs.

"I think somebody needs to come up with some clear guidelines," Creech said, adding that she has no plans to flush them. "(That) messes up our fish, and I'm a fish eater."

Raleigh's Substance Abuse Advisory Commission is sponsoring its third annual Pill Drop-Off from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 21 at four local Food Lion stores: 13200 New Falls of Neuse Road, 5633 Creedmoor Road, 2420 Wycliff Road and 1601 Cross Link Road.

People disposing of medications at the drop-off sites can use markers to black out personal information on pill bottles, officials said, before turning them over to police officers and pharmacists.