Subject: Healthcare Sciences and Medicine
Language: English (U.S.)
Pages: 1
In 2002, a study was conducted on 139 streams in 30 states to look for micro-contaminants in waters that are used as sources of drinking water in the United States. In 80% of these streams, pharmaceutical active substances were identified, along with components used in personal care products (cosmetics) (Koplin et al., 2002). Further studies found that many of these chemical substance passed through municipal wastewater treatment plants without being degraded or removed. The result is that these compounds are being discharged into streams, and it is alleged that these compounds are responsible for exerting adverse effects on wildlife, including the feminization of male fish and inducing sluggish activity levels in fish; three legged amphibians have also been observed (Koplin et al., 2002). With a focus on the residual pharmaceuticals in the environment (PIE), it is clear that these are a direct result of human excretion and direct disposal of medicines into the environment. In 2005, the State of Washington averaged 8.5 prescriptions per capita with a total of 53 million being filled by retail outlets (Koplin et al., 2002). This does not include institutional medicines prescribed in hospitals and nursing homes. The PIE issue has nothing to do with the manufacture of pharmaceuticals as their waste is segregated with specialized treatments for hazardous wastes and for non-hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes will mostly go to thermal oxidizers for destruction. Non-hazardous waste is regulated by pretreatment categorical standards and by wastewater discharge permits, holding the manufacturing facility to strict performance standards. Reference Kolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Meyer, M.T., Thurman, E.M., Zaugg, S.D., Barber, L.B., & Buxton, H.T. (2002). Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in U.S. streams, 1999-2000: A national reconnaissance. Environmental Science and Technology, 36(6), 1202-1211. Assignment: Using articles that you find in in your research, put the PIE issue into perspective. Do this by including relevant discussion and analysis on the following areas: Outline the political and societal concerns that are related to this issue. The sources and impacts of these pharmaceutical residuals (chemical substances) being discharged into streams Describe the recommendations and programs in the United States for disposing of unused medicines. Compare these to how medicines are disposed in Europe. Make a recommendation to EPA on how unused medicines should be disposed. Make your case for who should pay for the disposal program: the patient, the manufacturer, or the government?

Pharmaceuticals in the Environment

Political and Societal Concerns

           It is common knowledge that pharmaceuticals can be found in nearly 80% of the world’s water systems (Kolpin, et al 2002). Direct disposal of the medicines into the environment and human excretion are responsible for the presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment. In this regard, the situation has created many political and societal concerns.

           A major concern is the impact of the pharmaceuticals on human beings and the environment. Pharmaceuticals contain biologically active components that are meant to interact with specific pathways in both animals and humans. The concern is that these biologically active components in the drugs may have adverse effects on humans and animals since high levels have been found in several streams across the country and other parts of the world.

The concern is valid as most people and animals use the contaminated water for drinking and cooking purposes.  The society is also worried about the effects of humans and animals being exposed to high levels of these substances over a long period. The lack of comprehensive knowledge on the effects of these substances on the human and animal population is also a source of major concern for most members of the public (Sanderson, et al 2002). The lack of knowledge on the concentrations and effects means that there is no way of establishing a proper regulatory system to deal with the menace of pharmaceuticals in the environment.

Other social concerns include the fact that drug sales have increased tremendously over the past few decades. This means that there are more drugs that need to be disposed of and they will most probably end up in the water systems. Furthermore, most families usually flush their left over drugs. In addition, the lack of compliance regulations also contributes to higher accumulations of PIE. Another alarming concern for the society is the fact that most home poisonings usually involve pharmaceuticals especially in the cases of child poisoning.

PIE is also a source of major political concern. The government has been unable to accurately determine the concentration levels of the medicines in the water systems around the country. Due to the lack of comprehensive knowledge on the effect of the medicines on animal and human health, the government has not yet began to regulate their disposal. The concern is that lack of regulation might have severe health and environmental consequences in the future.

Sources and Impacts of PIE

           Pharmaceuticals in the environment have been present since human beings began using them as treatment for a myriad of diseases. Human beings have been disposing these substances into the environment through excretion, direct disposal into sewers, and bathing. When people ingest the medicines, they are excreted while still in biological form. The excrement usually ends up in nearby surface waters. Families also throw away unused medicines, which account for nearly 50% of nearly all prescription medications. Furthermore, it is a common practice in many households to flush any remaining pharmaceutical products.

           The impact of low-level concentrations of these pollutants on aquatic life, and humans has not been conclusively determined. However, scientists have established that some of the pharmaceuticals found in the environment have the potential of disrupting the endocrine system. Such substances include DDT, bisphenol A, diethylpthalate, and endosulfan; have been known to cause adverse health effects on humans and animals after long-term exposure.

           Research shows that the pharmaceutical waste may be responsible for feminization of fish in the Potomac River (Fahrenthold, 2004). The male bass in the Potomac River are producing eggs, which is likely due to the hormonal medicines that find their way into the water body through excretion or direct disposal. Such medicines seem to be altering the chemical balance in the male fish, making them carry eggs in their testicles. The finding is crucial as it might point to how human and animal sex organs may be affected with continued exposure to the pollutants.


           One major recommendation is for the legislators to increase the scope of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The RCRA is federal legislation that seeks to control how solid and hazardous wastes are disposed into the natural environment from a wide variety of sources including industries. For instance, the RCRA dictates how the pharmaceutical companies manage and dispose of their waste.

However, the RCRA does not cover the management and disposal of household waste, which often includes pharmaceutical products generated in the household. It is recommended that the legislation be amended to include the management of pharmaceutical waste that is generated in households. Such an endeavor would reduce the level of pharmaceutical contaminants in the country’s water system significantly.

Families should also be educated on how to minimize their pharmaceutical waste. The objective can be met by setting up community drug collection groups. The groups will go around houses collecting unwanted drugs and then disposing them appropriately. The community groups will also be responsible for educating the public on the hazards of flushing down their unwanted or unused medications.  


Fahrenthold, D.A. (2004, Oct 15). Male Bass in Potomac Producing Eggs. The Washington Post. Retrieved on 23/5/2016 from

Kolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Meyer, M.T., Thurman, E.M., Zaugg, S.D., Barber, L.B., & Buxton, H.T. (2002). Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in U.S. streams, 1999-2000: A national reconnaissance. Environmental Science and Technology, 36(6), 1202-1211.

Sanderson, H., Johnson, D. J., Reitsma, T., Brain, R. A., Wilson, C. J., & Solomon, K. R. (2004). Ranking and prioritization of environmental risks of pharmaceuticals in surface waters. 

Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology



(2), 158-183.