Doctors prescribe medicines to treat a disease, correct a deficiency, or prevent a condition from happening. For example, beta blockers help lower blood pressure, iron tablets correct iron deficiency, and birth control pills prevent pregnancy.
We take our prescribed medication as directed (or sometimes we don’t!) and expect it to do what it is meant to do in our body. Whether we take it or flush it down the toilet, it ends up in the sewerage system. And there is not one wastewater treatment plant in the world that can remove all of the thousands of different pharmaceuticals in use globally.
Which means that it ends up in our environment or back in our water supply. And this has experts worried because there is already evidence that medical waste is having a significant effect on a number of ecosystems.
Research has shown that environmental contamination with ethinyl estradiol, found in oral contraceptives, is associated with intersex fish (male fish that produce eggs in their testes). Residual antibiotics can encourage the growth of multi-resistant bacteria and anthelmintic residues in livestock affect Dung beetle functioning. Diazepam has been found in the New York city’s water supply and metformin, a diabetes drug, is present in Lake Michigan. But these are not isolated events. Medicine contamination of the environment is a global….and growing…problem.
It’s time we all started putting a bit more effort into minimizing drug waste and protecting our planet. Never flush your unwanted medicines down the toilet. Instead, take advantage of National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days in your area, the next one being October 26, 2019. You could gather support from your community and lobby your local government for upgrades to your local sewerage-treatment plant to allow better pharmaceutical removal. Ask your doctor what treatments are more environmentally friendly; countries such as Sweden grade their drugs on their environmental effects, with doctors being required to prescribe the less environmentally damaging option. Drug companies should also involve environmental scientists much earlier in the drug discovery process, to advise on how to balance efficacy with environmental concerns.
There is only one Earth. Look after it.