Like most people, Pittsburgh’s Erin Yourd has medicines in the house that she uses and medicines she doesn’t. She keeps the latter in a bowl on her countertop she calls the “big bowl.” It’s positioned out of reach of her three-year-old son, the baby in her arms and the family dog.

“I actually have no idea what this is,” she says, picking up a blue packet, turning it over to look for clues. “Oh! It’s something my husband got. He had some pain in his mouth, and it looks like he didn’t even use it.”

Yourd worries her kids could get into the drugs, or they could end up in the wrong hands. But getting rid of unused medications—at least doing it the right way—isn’t all that straightforward. Google offered some mixed answers. And Yourd knew that flushing them down the toilet was definitely not a good idea.

“Toilets aren’t garbage disposals, they’re not trash cans—they’re toilets,” says Jeanne Clark, the public information officer for Allegheny County’s sewer authority. “[Medications] come through our system, and by and large, they will not be changed at all.”

Clark says there’s no way of preventing drugs such as painkillers or antibiotics from entering the sewer system through human waste. But we don’t need to be compounding the problem by flushing medications down the toilet.

LISTEN: “The Right Way to Dispose of Your Medications”

Flushing or no flushing, researchers are finding a soup of pharmaceutical compounds in our national waterways. And while the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t mandate specific limits for pharmaceuticals in drinking water, studies show what gets filtered out in the treatment process varies widely.

“These days in America, you’re not going to have a glass of water—unless you’re really out in the sticks—that doesn’t have some Prozac in it,” says Terry Collins, a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Even trace amounts of medications can have impacts. Today’s drugs are highly effective in low concentrations, so even after filtering water, pharmaceutical compounds can still have potency at levels in the parts per billion to parts per trillion.

“Twenty-five years ago, everybody would have said, ‘Well, that’s so little, what could it possibly do?’ We now know many of these chemicals impact aquatic life seriously,” Collins says.

For example, researchers have found that even small amounts of estrogen, commonly found in birth control, can cause male fish to start producing eggs. That can cause entire fish populations to crash. And while humans are not fish, many compounds in medications are known to interfere with the human endocrine system.

Erin Yourd at home with her six-month-old daughter. “I wish we could come up with something better,” she says of drug disposal options. “It would be really handy to be able to [take it back] to the pharmacy and say, 'dispose of this properly for us.'” Photo: Margaret J. Krauss

Erin Yourd at home with her six-month-old daughter. “I wish we could come up with something better,” she says of drug disposal options. “It would be really handy to be able to [take it back] to the pharmacy and say, ‘dispose of this properly for us.’” Photo: Margaret J. Krauss

So if flushing excess medication is out—and throwing meds in the trash could result in pharmaceuticals seeping into groundwater—what’s the best thing to do?

“The very safest thing we can do is encourage people to take them to a location where we are sure that they will be incinerated,” says Patricia Kroboth, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Pharmacy.

As it turns out, National Drug Take-Back Day is coming up on April 30, and sites across the country will be accepting drugs. Or you can go online anytime and find a medication dropbox near you.

Erin Yourd wishes the process wasn’t so complicated. “It would be really handy to be able to [take it back] to the pharmacy and say, ‘dispose of this properly for us.’”

Kroboth says it’s key that if you can’t dispose of your medications right away to at least make sure you put them in a safe place.

“Put them in a locked location, securely stored, until you can take them to a take-back place.”

It may not be the most convenient solution. But it keeps everyone safe.

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This story is part of our Citizen Q series, where we answer your everyday questions about the environment. If you have a question, drop us a line. You might just end up on the radio.