Analysis by Marianne English
Prescription drugs flushed down the toilet can travel beyond local water treatment plants to local bodies of water. But amid concerns about harming the environment, one analysis presented at the general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology shows a compound found in antidepressant medications may limit E. coli populations and other potentially harmful bacteria from growing in Great Lakes ecosystems.
Fluoxetine, the active ingredient in antidepressants such as Prozac, Sarafem and other medications used to treat mental health disorders, was found in small amounts in Lake Erie. The research team told National Geographic News that the amount of the drug found, roughly one nanogram per liter of water, is too small to affect humans, but enough to kill off other bacteria also introduced by humans, including excess E. coli bacteria.
But the source of the drug is yet to be found.
“There’s no particular fallout. We don’t have a direct sewage outfall located anywhere near the beaches,” said Steve Mauro in the article.
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Mauro previously sampled Lake Erie but conducted more research to assess the amounts of specific contaminants more closely this past year. Because antidepressants also have the potential to kill off good bacteria, it’s unclear what the cumulative effects of pharmaceutical pollution will be for human health and that of surrounding ecosystems.
The research highlights a growing problem: Intentionally or not, we’re flushing the medications we depend on down the drain.
For instance, if you take a pill, there’s still a chance you’ll excrete some of the active ingredients in your urine. In addition, many people still flush their expired or unused prescription drugs down the toilet, with active ingredients often finding their way past the water treatment process and into local streams, lakes and oceans.
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Disposing prescription drugs with little impact on the environment is doable, according to the FDA. Some drug labels state it’s OK to flush the doses down the toilet, while others instruct consumers to return the product to drug programs or even place it in containers with cat litter or coffee grounds to be disposed of in land fills. Generally speaking, most labels help direct consumers on how to dispose of drugs safely.
There are also recycling programs for unused medications as well.
But limiting pharmaceutical pollution won’t truly be an option until waste water facilities are equipped to filter out drug waste, even if it’s diluted in urine.
Photo by Breadchastick/Wikimedia Commons