The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933;
Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Uncontrolled Medical Drug Discharges into Drinking Water

EPA Health Facility Guidance Is Weak, Contradictory and Counterproductive


A new effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stem mounting water pollution from pharmaceuticals will be ineffective and may make matters worse, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). EPA is attempting to stem the disposal of drugs by health facilities into sewers which eventually discharge into freshwater sources.

The drinking water of approximately 50 million Americans is currently contaminated with chemicals from pharmaceuticals. The largest pathway for this "Pharma Pollution" is us. Many of the components of these drugs and supplements are not completely metabolized by the human body. The un-metabolized portions of these compounds are excreted when people defecate or urinate. Another pathway is the disposal of unused medicines and drugs, which are often flushed down the toilet or washed down drains.

In late August, EPA issued a draft "Guidance Document: Best Management Practices for Unused Pharmaceuticals at Health Care Facilities" in which it states "the Agency believes that these facilities dispose large quantities of unused pharmaceuticals to sewers." In comments filed today at the comment deadline, PEER argues that this voluntary guidance will likely not change medical facilities' practices and instead urges EPA to ban sewage disposal of pharmaceuticals.

"EPA cannot chat away this growing problem," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and lawyer who formerly worked at EPA, noting that insulin, estrogen and other hormones are very potent chemicals associated with reproductive abnormalities in fish - male fish bearing eggs - and genetic damage in frogs and other species. "EPA should stop introduction of controlled substances, endocrine disruptors and chemotherapy drugs, among other clearly hazardous chemicals, into our waters."

In addition to the limited, voluntary nature of the EPA plan, PEER points out that the guidance provided is confusing and may be counterproductive, including problems such as -

  • Promoting disposal of unused drugs in unlined landfills where the chemicals eventually leach into surrounding waters;
  • Allowing health care facilities to "use disposal down the drain sewer (or flushing) as an acceptable destruction option for controlled substances" even though controlled substances typically are extraordinarily powerful chemicals; and
  • Adding to the problem by encouraging disposal of drugs before their expiration date. At the same time, another arm of EPA is working to weaken storage, training and tracking requirements for health care facilities handling pharmaceutical wastes. These new rules are to be finalized in 2011.

"EPA is taking one timid step forward and two backward in addressing pharmaceutical pollution," said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein. "With each passing month, the public health and environmental risks deepen yet EPA has yet to come up with a coherent strategy."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.