ALBANY, New York, August 11, 2008 (ENS) - For years, environmental and health officials have instructed people to flush unused pharmaceuticals down the toilet, but low levels of drugs have now been detected in drinking water supplies, prompting these same officials to reverse their policy and warn people not to flush unwanted drugs.
A new initiative to keep pharmaceuticals out of New York waters was announced Friday by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The "Don't Flush Your Drugs" campaign and website is intended to raise public awareness and provide information about how to dispose of both prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines to help prevent future problems with water quality.
"It is critical that all New Yorkers do their part to protect the state's water resources," said Governor David Paterson. "While recognizing that the presence of pharmaceuticals in the water is a multi-faceted issue with no single solution or easy technological fix, all of us need to take precautionary action on the things we can affect immediately."
"This is an emerging environmental issue and the consequences are not yet clear," said DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis.
"We recognize that we're now asking residents to change something that has been standard practice for years, but we know everyone wants to protect New York's water quality and public health," Grannis said. "New Yorkers can help out by not flushing unused drugs and instead using alternate disposal methods.
Instead of flushing medicines, Grannis says New Yorkers should place their unused, unwanted or expired drugs in the trash.
To avoid accidental or intentional misuse of drugs, treat liquids and pills by adding water and then salt, ashes, dirt, cat litter, coffee grounds, or another undesirable substance, officials now recommend.
Hide all medications in an outer container, such as sealable bag, box or plastic tub to prevent discovery and removal from the trash. Seal the container with strong tape. Do not conceal discarded drugs in food to prevent consumption by scavenging humans, pets or wildlife. Further suggestions are on the new DEC website http://www.dontflushyourdrugs.net/.
A nationwide study done in 1999 and 2000 by the United States Geological Survey found low levels of antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids in 80 percent of the rivers and streams tested.
Though no New York community was singled out, recent studies show that pharmaceuticals can be found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.
The concentrations of the pharmaceuticals are far below typical medical doses but studies have found problematic impacts on wildlife, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that the issue is a serious concern.
At least 24 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. have been identified as having pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies. Philadelphia officials found 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in the city's treated drinking water. Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a Southern California drinking water supply. Three medications, including an antibiotic, were found in the water supplied to Tucson, Arizona.
"New York's public drinking water is of high quality, but keeping unused drugs out of our waters helps to maintain or improve that quality," said New York State Department of Health Commissioner Richard Daines, MD. "Hospitals and other institutions can also help with these efforts."
"The State Education Department recognizes this emerging environmental problem and is working with the DEC to address the proper disposal of drugs." New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills said.
"The Education Department, with the advice of its Board of Pharmacy and the pharmaceutical community that it regulates, continue to study why so many dispensed drugs go unused and to determine appropriate strategies to insure that New Yorkers and their environment are protected," said Mills.
Scientists say pharmaceuticals get into water when individuals and institutions flush unused drugs and when drug manufacturers discharge pharmaceutical wastes.
Also, when unabsorbed drugs pass through the through the human body they may not be completely decomposed in septic tanks. Wastewater treatment plants are not specifically designed to eliminate these types of chemicals, so treatment of municipal and industrial discharge is not the entire answer. Nor do drinking water treatment plants remove all drug residues.
Under the new campaign, DEC will take pro-active steps to address the issue. These include educating the public about the potential hazards of pharmaceuticals in the water and about the proper disposal of unused drugs. This will include consumer guidance on DEC's web site and education materials in pharmacies.
New York agencies will collaborate on a new state guidance for pharmaceutical disposal practices at hospitals and other institutions. Led by the DEC, this task force will work with the institutions to ensure the guidance is workable and to spread the word about newly prescribed disposal methods.
DEC will encourage pilot collection programs for pharmaceuticals, either by pharmacies or local governments and seek federal funding to create pilot programs and determine the feasibility of a statewide collection program.
New York agencies will combine research efforts with federal environmental and health agencies and will urge the EPA to update and revise federal regulations for disposing pharmaceuticals and update water standards. Grannis says New York and most other states do not have the resources to do this on their own and most of EPA's water quality criteria date back to the early 1980s.
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