Guest Column | May 12, 2014

The Right Prescription For Disposing Of Medications

Mark W. LeChevallier

By Mark LeChevallier, PhD, Director of Innovation & Environmental Stewardship at American Water

There are many pathways by which pharmaceuticals can get into waterways. When you take an aspirin, it all doesn’t stay in your body, a portion of drug is excreted in the urine or feces.  Research has also shown that environmental discharge of pharmaceuticals can occur during the manufacturing process, and waters receiving treated wastes from manufacturing plants can contain high levels of the chemicals.  Another known pathway is the disposal of unused medications, which presents water utilities with an excellent opportunity to engage the public in communicating the impact of responsible waste practices and the impact of these actions on our watersheds.

Many people assume it’s OK to dispose of medications (their own or their pets’) either by flushing them down the toilet or throwing them in the garbage. Flushed pharmaceuticals can end up in watersheds, while meds thrown in the trash can take years to degrade and potentially make their way into ground and surface water. In doing so, the public must realize that they could be harming our most precious resource — water!

Despite the debate on the relative contribution of flushed pharmaceuticals to the overall occurrence of medications in the environment, the disposal of drugs down the drain or in landfills is simply unnecessary — and is a learning opportunity.  It is a golden opportunity to educate customers how a thoughtless action like flushing the toilet can have profound impacts on the environment.  At American Water, most of our utilities have implemented pharmaceutical disposal programs. Many have been involved in starting up prescription drug drop-off programs, including Indiana American Water, who began three of these programs in different communities throughout the state, while California American Water is launching a program later this year with the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea Police Department.

Many of the company’s utilities partner with Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal (P2D2). P2D2 was created by Pontiac High School (Illinois) students and offered local residents a safe disposal location for unwanted medications. A supporter of P2D2 since the program creation, American Water chose to use P2D2 as a model for pharmaceutical disposal programs.

The P2D2 model is a collaborative effort between water utilities, police departments, pharmacists, and environmental stewards to install a two‐key drop box (similar to a mailbox) in a secure location (police department, city hall, pharmacy) to collect unwanted pharmaceuticals. Anyone who desires to use the program simply drops their unwanted medications into the drop box for collection by the police department. The collected pharmaceuticals are sorted, if desired, by a licensed pharmacist into two groups: controlled and non‐controlled substances. The purpose of sorting is to control incineration costs because controlled substances are more expensive per pound to incinerate than non‐controlled substances. Controlled substances also require a witness fee. Work continues to establish P2D2 programs, but to date more than 30 programs in Illinois have been implemented and supported by Illinois American Water.

Missouri American Water is one of the founding members of Missouri P2D2. Today, nine local police departments provide free, safe, and anonymous medicine collection to more than a million people in St. Louis County. Missouri P2D2 facilities collect approximately 3,500 pounds of prescription and over-the-counter medicines each quarter.

Iowa, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania American Water have also set up drop boxes at local police stations, which enable citizens to dispose of their no-longer-needed/expired medications year-round and to improve the public health and safety. And our employees at Virginia American Water volunteer at the Alexandria Police Headquarters’ collection event.

Not only are we supporting these events, we are also educating children about the importance of drug-take-back as it relates to the environment and keeping drugs off the street, too. Tennessee American Water recently hosted a youth workshop for children ages 10 to 15 about keeping our water sheds clean.

Additionally, as part of American Water’s Environmental Grant Program, which offers funds for innovative, community-based environmental projects that improve, restore or protect the watersheds, surface water, and/or groundwater supplies in our local communities, West Virginia American Water awarded a grant to Southern Appalachian Labor School in Fayette County to plan a drug take-back event in coordination with local social service and law enforcement providers for the rural Loop Creek area.

These collaborative efforts have significantly decreased the disposal of pharmaceuticals down the drain or the discard of medications in the trash. American Water-sponsored pharmaceutical disposal programs have contributed to thousands of pounds of unwanted medications being collected and incinerated.

Being a steward of the environment is a fundamental part of what every water utility does. At American Water, our vision to be the trusted steward of this precious resource — water. The company was founded over 125 years ago on a responsible and sustainable approach to business, and we are committed to that vision now more than ever.

Image credit: "Medical Drugs for Pharmacy Health Shop of Medicine," © 2012, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: