Pharmaceuticals in our waters

by Diana Restrepo-Osorio

Inappropriate disposal of expired or unused pharmaceuticals such as prescription drugs, over the counter medications and veterinary medications have potential effects in our waterways.  In the past, disposal of these medications was suggested to be done by flushing or pouring them down the sink with the main purpose of preventing children and pets from their accidental ingestion[i].  However, our dependence on pharmaceuticals has increased and large quantities of these chemicals are reaching our water bodies potentially affecting us and our environment. 

Along with the technology used to create newer and better pharmaceuticals, we have also developed scientific techniques which have led us to detect minute traces of low concentration pharmaceuticals in water supplies.  If these traces persist, costly and energy consuming water treatment procedures would need to be established.

According to the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies[ii], one of the main problems arising from the wide diversity of chemicals, their increasing quantity in the water and their continuous presence, is the potential for the development of chemical compounds resilient to degradation that could become “[…] easily absorbed by biota […]” and may make its way up the food chain. 

Studies have already shown that the current levels of hormones commonly used in oral contraceptives have affected reproductive processes in fish (Agencies 2009). 

According to the SMARXT DISPOSAL TM public awareness campaign, we can help to prevent exceeding levels of these contaminants reaching our water source by properly disposing of our expired or unused medications in the following manner:

Pour medication into a sealable plastic bag. If medication is a solid (pill, liquid capsule, etc.), add water to dissolve it.

Add kitty litter, sawdust, coffee grounds (or any material that mixes with the medication and makes it less appealing for pets and children to eat) to the plastic bag.

Seal the plastic bag and put it in the trash. 

Remove and destroy ALL identifying personal information (prescription label) from all medication containers before recycling them or throwing them away.

For more information, please visit


Please do not forget to participate in the DEA National Prescription Drug Take Back Day every April.  For more information and to locate a collection site near you, please visit



Agencies, A. o. M. W. (2009). Pharmaceuticals in the Water Enviroment. NACWA. S. Snyder, C. Lue-Hing, J. Cotruvoet al. Washington, DC, District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority.