I enjoy pretty much everything there is that has to do with the outdoors. Some of my most peaceful moments have been while walking through the forest, sitting on a beach, or boating (minus the loud engine). Accordingly I have a great respect for nature and enjoy learning about the plants and wildlife therein. My plan is to continue that learning process and hopefully enhance it by sharing what I learn. I intend for this blog to serve many purposes, but in the immediate future it will be a place for me, and hopefully others, to share ideas about reducing our individual impact on this planet, protecting wild spaces, and in general just to comment on the things we enjoy most in the great outdoors. I welcome all opinions as otherwise you cannot consider every aspect of a subject. However, I would ask that every opinion be expressed in a respectful way and considered with an open mind. Often there is no single right answer. Thanks.







Thursday, November 3, 2011

Impact of Medications on the Environment

I started this post a few weeks ago and was reminded that I needed to finish it when I attended an all-candidates meeting in Saanich last Thursday.  Saanich, where I live, is one of thirteen municipalities included in the Greater Victoria Capital Regional District.  Long story short several years ago the Province of British Columbia mandated that the Capital Regional District (CRD) must build sewage treatment facilities.  This has fuelled a more public debate over the last couple of years about whether sewage treatment is required or not.  Treating sewage and not sending filtered waste directly into the ocean might seem like an obvious conclusion, but one of the points brought up by opponents is that we are blessed with ocean currents that carry our "organic waste" away from shore and, I suppose, sufficiently dilute it so that it does not cause contamination.  It seems rather far fetched given that it has to end up somewhere, but I am not a scientist.

Now back to the all-candidates meeting.  Inevitably a sewage treatment question came up and one of the candidates brought up a point I had not previously considered. If our waste were actually only organic waste then it might not be so bad.  However, our waste is polluted with such an incredible amount of chemicals that it really cannot be considered organic.  One example is the copious amounts of medications that we humans ingest on a daily basis.  Think birth control pills, antibiotics, cold medications, anti-inflammatories, and any other prescribed, or over the counter medications you see at the pharmacy.  Not only are these chemicals making their way through our waste water systems, where there is rarely enough treatment to get the chemicals out before they make their way into other water systems, but also many people still dispose of these medications improperly.
Had a look in your medicine cabinet lately?  I was recently going through mine, as my daughter had a fever, and, as usual, had nothing but expired Children's Advil and Children's Tylenol.  Lucky for us we rarely get sick so inevitably I stock up on fever reducer, or cough medicines, and end up with half full containers of expired medication.  A few years ago I would have dumped them into the garbage can, poured them down the drain, or flushed them down the toilet, which historically was an acceptable method of disposal.  However, one day while I was reading the newspaper I happened upon a CRD ad recommending that you take your expired medications back to the pharmacy for proper disposal.  For the last few years I have happily gathered up expired allergy medications, gravol, Tylenol, Advil, cough syrups, etc. and taken them to the drug store for disposal.

It turns out that there are a variety of reasons why you should not simply let your medications be added to waste water or sent to the garbage dump.  I went searching online for some information about the consequences of careless antibiotic disposal and, while I found a lot of sites advocating for proper disposal, I got the impression that there is not an overwhelming amount of information available about the exact damage that our medications do to the environment.  However, there is enough to warrant some caution.  Possible effects of improper disposal of medications, prescription or otherwise, include: antibiotic resistant bacteria, harm to aquatic ecosystems and the animal species therein, and contamination of drinking water, or the food chain.

One report published by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) delves into the environmental impact of medications from human, veterinary, and agricultural use.  The report is entitled The environmental side effects of medication.  They describe their journal as "run by scientists for scientists" so the report is not the easiest read, but it is certainly worth a look, so save the link and read it in small doses if necessary.  A couple of interesting quotes from the report include:

"What is less known are the more subtle effects that therapeutically active substances can have on organisms in the environment, such as growth, fertility or behaviour." 

and

"Pharmaceuticals are unlikely to appear in the environment on their own so the current 'single-substance' approach to risk assessment could be underestimating environmental impacts."

Another useful webpage, which gives a summary of the reasons for proper disposal and the method of proper disposal, is this Health Canada Link.  This information was published originally in 2004 and has been updated as recently as January 2011.  It deals primarily with the risks of improper disposal methods and does not go into the other possible ways that medication can enter the environment like the previously mentioned EMBO report.  I will admit that it is an easier read though.

Obviously we cannot stop taking medications, however, I believe there are a couple of little steps that we as individuals can take to reduce our impact in this case.  Do not take antibiotics, or other medications unnecessarily.  Review your medicine cabinet and take expired medications to the pharmacy for proper disposal.  I have taken mine to Shoppers Drug Mart and Pharmasave with no trouble at all.  Now I am curious to find out what they do with them after that...

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