Drug disposal is an emerging and complex issue. Many regulations apply to pharmaceuticals with respect to public health and safety and the environment. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is working with various stakeholders to find low cost, environmentally responsible ways to manage waste pharmaceuticals.
Pharmaceuticals enter surface waters from various sources including, but not limited to:
- drugs flushed down the toilet or poured into drains;
- unmetabolized drugs excreted by humans and animals;
- surface application of manure and bio-solids; and
- commercial operations and aquaculture.
To date, researchers have not been able to determine the relative contribution of each of these sources. To reduce pharmaceutical-related pollution, we need to minimize and optimize the use of medications and to manage unused pharmaceuticals well.
Waste pharmaceuticals include a wide variety of items, including over-the-counter and prescription medications, controlled substances and sharps. These wastes come in the form of solid pills and capsules, creams, liquids and aerosols. Personal care products such as shampoos, lotions and makeup might also be included because the potential environmental impacts are similar.
Pharmaceuticals and related compounds have been widely found in wastewater effluent and in surface waters and, in limited cases, groundwater. Researchers are now investigating how some pharmaceuticals and personal care products may harm aquatic life. The environmental impacts are as varied as the products involved. Some impacts include:
- Pharmaceuticals and personal care products may contain mercury, selenium and other heavy metals. These Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic Substances (PBTs) can pollute the air, land and both surface water and ground water.
- Other pharmaceuticals are endocrine disruptors, which have been implicated with changes in the form, reproduction and sex-ratios of aquatic life.
- Antimicrobial agents such as triclosan may harm beneficial bacteria. Any disease-producing bacteria not killed by the products can develop into antibiotic resistant strains.
- Burning pharmaceuticals and their containers improperly (e.g., in burn barrels, industrial boilers) can contribute to air pollution. Uncontrolled incineration doesn't destroy drug components and it can create dangerous dioxins. For more information, see DNR's burn barrel fact sheet.
- Unused products and empty containers accumulate in our landfills. Drug components that leach out may seep into groundwater or be removed and sent to local wastewater treatment plants.
- Inappropriate donations of pharmaceuticals may create disposal issues and other environmental problems for the recipients, particularly if the drugs are exported to other countries.
For more information on environmental effects, see Pharmaceuticals Publications and Resources.
In addition to the environmental impacts, excess pharmaceuticals directly affect the health and safety of our families and communities. Pharmaceuticals are involved in accidental poisonings, medication errors, drug abuse and drug abuse-related crime.
Too Valuable to Waste
Although most excess pharmaceuticals and personal care products are not suitable for redistribution or donation, some are. For more information see Donating Medical Items.
Not only are materials being wasted, but the original value of the products is lost. Whoever paid for the medications, whether individuals, employers, taxpayers or insurance companies, could have used that money for other things.
Household pharmaceutical waste is excluded from regulation as a hazardous waste as set out in ch. NR 661, Wis. Adm. Code,. If, however, a household waste is managed separately by a non-household member, the exemption no longer applies. One exception to this would be persons collecting strictly household pharmaceuticals; DNR has issued an enforcement discretion memo to allow for the hazardous waste exclusion to apply in this situation.
Sharps, regardless of who generates them, must be managed separately from other wastes. For more information and a list of places that accept small amounts of sharps for disposal, see Sharps Disposal.
Non-household pharmaceutical waste may fall under the definition of one or more legal waste categories regulated by the DNR. Examples include hazardous wastes of various kinds, solid waste and infectious waste. Flushing pharmaceuticals may violate hazardous waste and wastewater rules. Non-household pharmaceutical waste may also be subject to requirements of other agencies, such as the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Preferred Handling Option: Don't Flush!
Many households, institutions and businesses have gotten into the habit of flushing waste pharmaceuticals down the toilet or pouring them down the drain because it is convenient, low cost and appears to be the simplest way to prevent unintended use or other diversion. However, wastewater treatment plants and septic systems are generally not designed to treat pharmaceutical waste. So don't flush your waste drugs!