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My Watershed

Pharmaceuticals in the Environment

Due to new assessment techniques, pharmaceuticals are now being detected in water and soil by scientists worldwide. Pharmaceuticals enter wastewater treatment plants through either excretion or disposal of unused medications. These pharmaceutical compounds may not be completely degraded at the wastewater treatment plant, before being released into the environment. While pharmaceuticals and related organic compounds have been found primarily in effluent and surface water, emerging research is showing the presence of pharmaceutical components in biosolids and soil.

How does pharmaceutical waste get into the environment?

Residential, commercial, and agricultural pharmaceuticals can follow two primary pathways to the environment:

  1. Excretion: Human and livestock excretion of drugs and metabolites following consumption (which ultimately follows sewage, septic, or surface runoff pathways to wastewater or to biosolids).

  2. Direct Disposal: Disposal of unused pharmaceuticals to a septic tank, sewer, or landfill.

If disposed of or excreted to the sewer, pharmaceuticals are sent to wastewater treatment plants that offer primary, secondary, or tertiary treatment levels. Regardless of the level of treatment, most conventional wastewater treatment cannot effectively eliminate pharmaceutical compounds.

Landfill leachate can contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals as well. Often this leachate is sent to the same wastewater treatment systems that receive residential wastewater. Pharmaceuticals have been detected in landfill leachate, so disposal of pharmaceuticals at engineered landfills may merely postpone pollution of surface water and groundwater.

As a result, incineration is currently the best method for destruction of unwanted pharmaceuticals. Many cities, counties and states are struggling to prevent and remove pharmaceuticals in both wastewater and solid waste.

What's the concern about pharmaceuticals in the environment?

Pharmaceutical use in the general population is growing, so more unwanted drugs are generated creating increased environmental concerns. Researchers suspect that hormones and pharmaceutical compounds in the water may be responsible for effects on wildlife including feminization of male fish, sluggish activity, or reduced appetite. Short and long term human health effects are currently unknown.

Are pharmaceuticals dangerous waste?

Many pharmaceuticals have ingredients with characteristics that cause them to designate as dangerous waste when disposed. Pharmaceuticals can designate as a federal hazardous waste or a Washington state-only dangerous waste.

Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA): Federally regulated hazardous waste includes lists of certain discarded chemical products and wastes with hazardous characteristics such as ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity.

Washington Dangerous Waste Regulations, Chapter 173-303 Washington Administrative Code (WAC): As a delegated authority to enforce RCRA, Ecology has additional criteria for toxicity and persistence that make many pharmaceuticals a dangerous waste.

Dangerous waste regulations apply to pharmaceuticals when a decision is made that they are not usable for their intended purpose. They are deemed waste rather than viable product.