Pill Particulates: a Problem for Processing our Pharmaceutical Pollution

A new study from researchers at Columbia University cites the environmental concerns of caffeine and numerous other substances lurking in the river water. Also found in the Hudson were an artificial sweetener and numerous medications for high blood pressure, ulcers, heartburn and pain relief. The drugs likely are getting there through municipal sewer treatment systems and some of the highest chemical levels were found near sewage discharge pipes for the city of Kingston. The levels are high enough to cause concern about the health of fish and other marine organisms. The study was a collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Riverkeeper, Lamont-Doherty and Queens College.

This is not a problem isolated to the Hudson River. Earlier studies have found antidepressants in the brains of fish in the Niagara River. In Jamaica Bay, pharmaceuticals were suspected to be the cause of the feminization of flounder (a 10:1 ratio of females to males) and delays in embryonic development. Even more troubling, trace amounts have been found in Suffolk County’s groundwater, potentially affecting its sole-source aquifer.

Public Stewardship Initiatives (PSIs) such as pharmaceutical take back acts represent an important first step in a much-needed examination into the contents and filtration of our water. In New York State, a two-year pilot program began at the end of 2017. The program concentrates on retail chain and independent pharmacies, hospitals and patient clinics with on-site pharmacies, and pharmacies serving long-term care facilities. Its motto: keep drugs out of waters and out of the wrong hands. The program is free for two years, after which disposal costs approximately $100-140 per month, for a mandatory 6-month period after the end of the trial. 

NYLCV is supporting a bill to go even further, S. 7354/A. 9576, which would require drug manufacturers to operate drug take back programs approved by the Department of Health in order to safely dispose of unused medication. It would also require chain pharmacies to collect drugs on-site or by mail as part of manufacturer-operated drug take back programs.

Small and large-scale pharmaceutical waste in our water — allowed in the absence of federal, state, and local regulations on the disposal of pharmaceuticals — poses quantifiable and increasing health concerns to aquatic and land-based life with unknown long-term salutary effects on human beings. Human bodies do not fully metabolize prescription medications. When Americans excrete the pills or flush them down the toilet, the medications end up with our sewage water. Prescription medication particulate, however, is too fine to be filtered out by sewage filters that weren’t built to process these complex compounds. Once the pills enter our bodies of water, the chemicals never fully dissolve. By further studying the effects of these chemicals on an eco systemic and individual organism level, we can quantify their impact and mitigate damage that has already been done and prevent future contamination.

The impact of chemical runoff has under-studied implications for human and animal health. For human beings, the contamination effects may be long-term, for there isn’t a high enough drug dosage in our waterways to cause short-term health problems. For wildlife, however, the threats posed by the improper disposal of pills is occurring in the here-and-now. Antibiotics end up in the brains of fish, making them more risk-averse and likely to be eaten. Estrogen-laden pills have caused male fish to lay eggs in some instances. For humans, in addition to the possibility of allergic reactions, antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in waterways pose long-term public health threats if they transmit disease to human populations. For instance, “superbugs” resistant to methilicilin kill 19,000 people each year. That’s more people than die from AIDS now. The prospect of nature using our chemical runoff against our immune systems is cause for concern.

As we continue to use pharmaceutical pills on a societal level, the problem of drug contamination — and its impact — will continue to spread. In the early 2000s, a U.S. national geological survey found organic waste contaminants in 76 of 95 water streams tested; these results appeared across 30 states. As of 2013, 7 of 10 Americans take prescription drugs, and those who do fill 3.7 billion prescriptions each year, and tend to acquire more prescriptions as they age. Wastewater plants dump at least 27 billion gallons of wastewater into our water bodies each year, and large-scale farms add more runoff into the mix. The more we use chemicals in the management of our day-to-day wellbeing, the more responsible we need to be for their environmental impact. These numbers are no-doubt increasing day by day, and are thus deserving of further study by scientists and further debate and discussion by legislators. The time to start the discussion on how to measure and reduce our chemical footprint’s effects on wildlife and human beings alike is now — not when the impact has become insufferably great.