Pharmaceuticals in the environment

Waste pharmaceuticals contain toxic chemicals that can affect the environment if they are not properly disposed of. Scientists have detected these chemicals in water, sediments, and fish. We encourage citizens to use pharmaceutical take-back programs rather than throwing them in the garbage or down the drain. As the agency charged with protecting Washington's environment, we regulate businesses to ensure they properly manage waste pharmaceuticals.

Why are waste pharmaceuticals an environmental concern?

As the population grows, pharmaceutical use is also growing. Pharmaceuticals are finding their way into the environment and foods. Many cities, counties, and states are struggling to prevent and remove pharmaceuticals from both wastewater and solid waste.

Wastewater treatment plants cannot completely remove pharmaceutical compounds. Pharmaceuticals and related organic compounds have been found primarily in effluent and surface water, but new research shows their presence in biosolids and soil.

Researchers suspect that hormones and pharmaceutical compounds in the water may be responsible for observed effects on wildlife, including:

  • Feminization of male fish
  • Sluggish activity
  • Reduced appetite
Short and long term health effects on humans are currently unknown.

Pharmaceutical waste pathways

Residential, commercial, and agricultural pharmaceuticals get into the environment through one of two ways:

  1. Excretion: Humans and livestock excrete drugs and metabolites (which ultimately goes to the sewer, septic, or surface runoff).
  2. Direct disposal: Putting unused pharmaceuticals into the sink or toilet (which leads to the septic tank or sewer), or trash (which leads to landfills).

What's wrong with putting pharmaceuticals down the drain, toilet, or sewer?

If disposed of or excreted to the sewer, pharmaceuticals go to wastewater treatment plants. Regardless of the level of treatment, most conventional wastewater treatment plants cannot eliminate pharmaceutical compounds. Pharmaceutical compounds therefore pass straight through into our waterways.

What's wrong with putting pharmaceuticals into the trash or landfill?

Disposing of pharmaceuticals into the trash, which goes to landfills, may merely postpone pollution of surface and groundwater. Landfill leachate, water that has leaked through the barriers of a landfill, can contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals. This leachate often winds up at the same wastewater treatment plants that receive residential wastewater, and eventually into our waterways.

What we're doing about it

Ecology works with healthcare facilities and other businesses to ensure they properly manage waste pharmaceuticals under Washington's dangerous waste regulations.