Thursday, August 05, 2010

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant promotes proper disposal of unwanted medicine to benefit wildlife, people

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant promotes proper disposal of unwanted medicine to benefit wildlife, people

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In a recent column I noted that for all the good they do, sewage treatment facilities are not designed to remove human medications from wastewater, but that the presence of medications in lakes and streams is a growing cause for concern.

To follow up on that, I checked in recently with Susan Boehme, a scientist who has been working on this issue in cooperation with many colleagues at the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, which is headquartered on the U of I campus in Urbana.

Boehme pointed out that the use of pharmaceuticals has grown remarkably in recent years. In 2009, for example, Americans spent more than $300 billion on prescriptions, which represents a 5.1 percent increase from the year before. Boehme also cited a United Nations study that projects a 3-fold increase in prescription use worldwide over the next 25 years.

As many people are already aware, pharmaceuticals are now found regularly in waterways. A widely-cited 2002 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found 95 different pharmaceutical chemicals in streams that were tested, and 80 percent of those streams contained one-third or more of the chemicals in question. Further studies have begun to show the impacts of those chemicals on aquatic creatures, including such disturbing things as the widespread development of female sex characteristics in male fish.

It’s not just wildlife that’s exposed to medications in streams and lakes, either. Studies commissioned by the Associated Press in 2008 found a variety of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, mood stabilizers, and hormones in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

Pharmaceuticals enter the environment by a variety of paths. Some chemicals are released at the plants where drugs are manufactured, and others through the waste we excrete after taking them. Still more are released into the environment when people dispose of unwanted medications improperly, especially by flushing them down the toilet. (I know, I know that really was what you were supposed to do, but it’s not anymore.)

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant educators have been working around the state to promote the proper disposal of medications by informing people about this problem and giving them the tools to address it. They have done so by providing high school teachers, 4-H leaders and others, with a compilation of multidisciplinary, standards-based classroom lessons, sample stewardship activities, and background information. Young people who have taken to heart the message of these lessons have been instrumental in establishing programs that allow individuals to dispose of unwanted medications properly—everything form one-day collection events to permanent collection sites at pharmacies and police stations.

The most important thing people can do individually to help reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals in the environment is to dispose of unwanted medications properly. This means not flushing them down the toilet, and not putting them into the trash, but instead getting them to a designated collection center. In east central Illinois Carle Rx Express currently provides drop boxes for this purpose at locations in Champaign, Urbana and Danville (information at

Individuals and communities not served by these locations might be interested in a toolkit developed by Sea Grant that provides guidance for establishing unwanted medicine collection programs at