Monday, April 23, 2018

Episode 417 (4-23-18): Disposing of Medications Properly for Human and Aquatic Health

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (3:42).

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, images, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 4-20-18.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of April 23, 2018.

This week we feature a waste-disposal mystery sound.  Have a listen for about 15 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s going on in this series of sounds.   And here’s a hint: If nearby fish heard this coming from your household, they would thank you, if they could.

SOUNDS - ~15 sec

That’s the sound of unused and expired medications being disposed of without flushing them down a drain or toilet.  Proper disposal of medications helps prevent unintended drug use and keeps pharmaceuticals from reaching waterways.  If medications are flushed into the wastewater system, at least some of the chemicals in the medications may remain after wastewater treatment and be discharged to waterways, where they can potentially harm aquatic life.  So instead of flushing unused medications, look for options to return them at your community’s pharmacies or other establishments.  If return centers aren’t available and you must dispose of medications, here are the disposal steps recommended for most medications:

Put the medication in a sealable plastic bag; add cat litter, coffee grounds, or other material that make the medications less recognizable and that would deter pets and children from eating the contents; then seal the bag and put it in the trash.  And be sure to remove all identifying personal information from prescription containers.

You should also check to see whether any local ordinances prohibit disposal of medications in household trash in your area.  Note that the federal Food and Drug Administration currently recommends flushing for certain medicines that pose a particular risk from improper use, and a list of those medications is available at that agency’s “Flushing of Certain Medicines” Web site.  But that recommendation is challenged by some people, including some staff at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, because of the potential impacts on aquatic systems.

Now here’s another option: April 28, 2018, is the next National Prescription Drug Take-back Day.  The event is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration, and conducted by law-enforcement agencies nationwide, whose officers are available at designated locations to accept medications for proper disposal.  To see if a take-back event is happening near you, call your local police or sheriff’s department or visit the Justice Department’s “Prescription Drug Take-back Day” Web site, where you can search for the take-back location nearest you.


For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This episode updates and replaces Episode 107 (4-16-12).

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at

From the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines,” online at


Following is more information about medications and other “microconstituents” in water systems, from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), “Microconstiuents in the Environment,” online at

“Studies have shown that our nation's waters contain a broad range of chemicals and compounds that can cause ecological harm.  As analytical test procedures continue to measure compounds in smaller and smaller concentrations, additional compounds are being identified in our waters.  These products include both human and veterinary drugs, antibiotics, fragrances and cosmetics, soaps, fire retardants, pesticides, and plasticizers (compounds which are used in a wide array of plastic products ranging from plastic bottles and eye glasses to sport safety equipment).

“Most of the products and compounds that have been developed and used by people will break down into their basic constituents (parts) and end up in the air, water or soil at some point.  The term microconstituent is now being used to describe natural or man-made compounds that are detected in the environment with a potential effect on organism development and human health.

Recently pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) have been highlighted as contributors of microconstituents in the environment.  PPCPs are ubiquitous in our lives; millions of pharmaceuticals become wastes each year as products pass their expiration date, become unwanted, or unneeded.  Ongoing studies reveal that pharmaceuticals are escaping into the environment and that some classes can act as endocrine disruptors, which have been linked to abnormalities and impaired reproductive performance in some species.  Pharmaceutical wastes present both wastewater and solid waste management issues.

“Many microconstituents enter the water from agriculture runoff and from people through bathing, hand washing, excretion (elimination of body waste), and by intentionally disposing of medications and personal care products down the drain (sink or toilet).  Some of these products will break down and degrade, but others persist and travel through the sewer system to the waste treatment plant.  Wastewater treatment plants are typically designed to handle domestic waste, and are often not able to effectively treat all of the compounds that are in the wastewater they receive (influent).  The wastewater discharged from a treatment plant (effluent) may contain small amounts of the microconstituents, which then end up in the groundwater, rivers, lakes, and ocean.  All of these water bodies are sources we use for drinking water.

“All of us can work to reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and other microconstituents that end up in the water.  Wastewater treatment plants are improving their technology to remove microconstituents.   We can eliminate a source of microconstituents by not disposing of unused or expired medications down the toilet or drains.

“At this time, the optimal way for individuals to get rid of unused or expired medications is to take them to a pharmaceutical collection event in the community.  Check your city or county website for announcement of these events. …Pharmaceuticals that are collected at these events will be incinerated.”


American Pharmacists Association, “Here’s How You Can Properly Dispose Of Your RX Medications,” 4/11/17, online at

Deborah DeBiasi, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, personal communication on federal recommendations for disposal of certain medications by flushing, 4/19/18.

U. Kahn et al., “Risks associated with the environmental release of pharmaceuticals on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ‘flush list,’” Sci. Total Environment, 12/31/17, online at

U.S. Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration, “National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, online at; and “Controlled Substance Public Disposal Locations - Search Utility,” online at

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Flusing of Certain Medicines,” online at; and “Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines,” online at

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Contaminants of Emerging Concern including Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products, online at

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), “Microconstiuents in the Environment,” online at


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Waste Management” subject category.


This episode may help with the following Virginia 2010 Science SOLs:

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 - Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decision, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.6 - ecosystem interactions, including the water cycle, other cycles, and energy flow.
LS.11 - relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Earth Science Course
ES.8 - influences by geologic processes and the activities of humans on freshwater resources, including identification of groundwater and major watershed systems in Virginia.

Biology Course
BIO.4 – life functions (including metabolism and homeostasis) in different organism groups, including human health, anatomy, and body systems.
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

The episode may also help with the following Virginia 2015 Social Studies SOLs:

Civics and Economics Course
CE.1 – skills for historical thinking, geographical anlaysis, economic decision-making, and responsible citizenship.
CE.6 – government at the national level.
CE.8 – government at the local level.
CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course
WG.2 - how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Government Course
GOVT.7 – national government organization and powers.
GOVT.8 – state and local government organization and powers.
GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to previous Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels:
Episode 250 (1-26-15) – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 255 (3-2-15) – on density, for 5th and 6th grade;
Episode 282 (9-21-15) – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten;
Episode 309 (3-28-16) – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade;
Episode 332 (9-12-16) – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403 (1-15-18) – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 404 (1-22-18) – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade;
Episode 406 (2-5-18) – on ice on rivers, for middle school;
Episode 407 (2-12-19) – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.