November 19, 2018

Health Care Role in Preventing Water Pollution

The Unintended Destination of Pharmaceuticals

Along with many integral health care tools and processes, pharmaceuticals are a critical part of patient care and contribute to medical waste streams. A combination of new drugs being made available and more prescriptions being filled to care for a growing population has added to potentially dire effects on the environment, especially if pharmaceuticals are improperly disposed.

Expired and unused medications are often washed down sinks, flushed down toilets, thrown in regular trash, or discarded with non-hazardous medical waste, ending up in landfills or sewage treatment plants. Ultimately, this can lead to trace amounts of pharmaceuticals leaching into the surrounding environment and ultimately into our drinking water. Components of multiple pharmaceuticals have been found in the drinking water of more than 40 million Americans.

Although scientists don’t yet fully understand how these trace pharmaceuticals in water will affect humans over time, negative impacts to fish and wildlife have already been seen, indicating how these pollutants may eventually affect humans. Studies have shown that fish, at various life stages, exposed to complex combinations of drugs in their environment have suffered various adverse effects such as reduced growth, weakening of defense systems, as well as organ and hormonal changes.

Health Care Organizations Can Take a Lead

To significantly curb the amount of dangerous drugs entering sewage treatment plants, landfills and the environment as a whole, health care organizations should take a lead in addressing the issue, including having robust pharmaceutical waste programs in place. These programs involve closely complying with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)—the federal government’s program that, among other things, addresses proper hazardous drug disposal. It’s also essential for organizations to follow state and local regulations. Comprehensive pharmaceutical disposal programs ensure disposed drugs are rendered harmless before introduction into the environment, for instance, through incineration and other methods.

While health care organizations play a critical role, patients who take prescribed drugs at home are also responsible for discarding unused medications in a safe and effective manner. This could involve participating in drug take-back programs or seal-and-send initiatives. To encourage compliance, providers should educate patients about the programs that are available in their communities.

Making a Commitment to Sustainability

The growing environmental impact from the use of pharmaceuticals cannot be overlooked. By making a commitment to reliable, compliant pharmaceutical waste disposal through a robust program, health care organizations can become effective stewards of the environment and help limit pharmaceutical water pollution. At Stericycle, we’re dedicated to innovating new solutions that protect the environment and prevent pharmaceutical waste from entering waterways. Learn more about our comprehensive pharmaceutical waste solutions that not only ensure reliable compliance, but also help minimize health care organizations’ environmental impact for generations to come.

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