Addressing Unchecked Dumping of Drugs in Waterways

river_view_headerOn January 12, 2010, the Attorney General of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announced a groundbreaking agreement with five healthcare facilities that will end the practice of disposing of pharmaceutical  waste into the watershed.  The Agreement will fine the facilities anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000 for discarding painkillers, antibiotics, anti-depressants, hormones and other pharmaceuticals into toilets and sinks. The Agreement will thus go a step further in safeguarding the drinking water for 9 million people residing in New York City, portions of Westchester, Putnam, Ulster, and Orange Counties.

AG’s investigation is a step in the right and precedential direction.¬† (As a side note, neither NY AG, nor any other AG,¬†¬†investigated pharmaceutical companies for their dumping of pharma wastes, despite evidence that filtration facilities at many drug plants systemically allow significant amounts of pharmaceutical wastes into the waterways.¬† If pharma wastes in our¬†waterways¬†are to¬†be addressed in earnest, then¬†avoiding¬†pharma dumping¬†by drug manufacturers is not an option.)

According to¬†NY AG’s investigation, the facilities’ handling of pharmaceutical wastes violated various provisions of the federal waste management law (i.e., the¬†Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or ‚ÄúRCRA‚ÄĚ), State regulations implementing RCRA, and, in some instances, the federal Clean Water Act.¬† Violations included the failure to properly identify, track, and dispose of pharmaceutical and other wastes defined as ‚Äúhazardous waste‚ÄĚ under RCRA because they contain toxic chemicals.

While NY is the first state to take action against facilities that dump pharmaceutical wastes into waterways, it is not the first to conduct such investigations.  Other investigations of pharmaceutical dumping into U.S. waterways revealed that many medical facilities are not following the required disposal procedures.  For example, an investigation by Associated Press/San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, that looked at 5,700 hospitals and 45,000 long-term care facilities that maintain records of unused medications, reported that hospitals, hospices and nursing homes dump at least 250 million pounds of unused medications and contaminated packaging into the U.S. drinking water supply each year.   According to the study, even the more dutiful hospitals are flushing dozens of gallons of unused drugs from unemptied syringes or from spoiled supplies.  Not surprisingly, many cities are facing extraordinary high levels of pharmaceuticals in their waters.


Courtesy of Tom Varco

Why does this matter?  After all, some drug presence in the wastewater is inevitable and much of what leeches out is excreted drugs and chemicals left undigested by human bodies.  Pharmaceutical wastes are not even the largest source of pollution in the waterways, well behind municipal waste, agriculture and chemical pollutions.

It matters because the the pharmaceutical cocktail in the waterways, which includes, among others,¬†birth control pills, antibiotics, anti-depresssants, and¬†heart medications, is dangerous to human¬†and animal health.¬†¬†In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency identified pharmaceuticals as ‚Äúcontaminants of emerging concern.”

Female and male hormones present in waterways,¬†like many industrial chemicals,¬†act as endocrine disruptors.¬† U.S. Geological Survey (‚ÄúUSGS‚ÄĚ) studies demonstrate that even low presence of endocrine disruptors in our waters has ruinous impact on fish populations.¬† Not only were endocrine disruptors shown to stunt brain and nervous system development in fish, they were also shown to impair the growth and function of the reproductive system and have resulted in “intersex” fish, a condition where affected fish present both female and male reproductive organs.¬† The presence of intersex fish has been widely documented across the country from the Potomac to Columbia rivers.¬†¬† Although more studies are needed some human affects are bound to appear.¬† For example, some researchers speculate that endocrine disruptors in drinking water contribute to the early onset of puberty in young girls.

Similarly, antibiotics commonly used to treat infections both in humans and animals and commonly found in soaps are also omnipresent in the wastewater. In addition, typical hospital waste is laden with virulent germs. According to AP, some researchers were able to link drug dumping to virulent antibiotic-resistant germs and mutations that may promote cancers.¬† Given the emerging threat of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” such as the increasingly frequent MRSA and other bacteria, we have good reasons to worry.

Testing at the University of Georgia in Athens also found that low levels of common anti-depressants, including Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Celexa, cause developmental problems in fish and metamorphosis delays in frogs.

Likewise,  in a 2008 study by the New York State Department of Health and School of Public Health, SUNY Albany, found low levels of antibiotics, heart medications, pain killers, mood stabilizers, and hormones in wastewaters and waterways within the New York City Watershed.  And, according to a 2003 CNN report, a survey in 2002 by USGS, conducted on waters from 139 rivers in 30 states, showed evidence of drugs, hormones, steroids as well as personal care products such as soaps and perfumes in 80 percent of streams that were sampled.

No study has yet to look at the long term affects of pharma-cocktail on humans but common sense dictates that the presence of these  and other pharmaceuticals in our waterways is detrimental to health.

Pharmaceutical wastes present a unique problem¬†as our wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to deal with this type of chemical pollution onslaught.¬†¬†The situation is thus¬†not likely to improve without regulatory or legal action.¬† As Eric A. Goldstein, New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “We want to nip in the bud any emerging threat to the state’s water drinking water supplies.”

So, is anyone still thirsty?

You can read about drug dumping by pharmaceutical companies in this AP article and this other AP article.

Also,¬†check out the¬† Food and Drug Adminstration’s recommendation to consumers for disposal of¬†pharmaceutical wastes.