The stories about pharmaceuticals in drinking water have been all over the news this summer. This makes me angry and scared, and I’m glad to see it getting media coverage. I haven’t seen anything yet about the water in the Denver metro area or here in Broomfield, but Colorado Springs was among the communities where trace amounts of pharmaceuticals were found in the water supply.
According to the articles I’ve read, the primary source of the contamination is unmetabolized drug residue being excreted in human waste and flushed into the water system. So the over-medicating of our country is not only triggering higher health care costs and less prescription coverage on health insurance policies; it’s also causing our water supplies to be contaminated with drug residues.
In addition to human excretion, millions of pounds of unused prescription drugs are flushed into our wastewater systems every year. Hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies, and prisons flush controlled drugs that are expired, contaminated, or simply not needed. If a patient dies with a nearly-new supply of medications on his nightstand, the left overs are flushed. Why are we not recycling these massive quantities of unused drugs? If we follow the money, my guess is that they get flushed because it’s better for the pharmaceutical industry’s bottom line to sell a whole new supply of drugs, even if there are excess drugs that could be used instead. Drugs packaged in bottles do present a contamination risk once the bottle has been opened. But how difficult would it be to package all pills in blister packs, with unused portions protected from contamination and available for reuse? Patients could be provided with child-proof containers for storing their blister-packs of pills, and left-overs could be returned to pharmacies and drug makers for re-distribution.
The overuse of antibiotics to treat ailments that are self-remitting (and to clean ourselves and our homes) has increased concerns about “superbugs.” Imagine the superbugs in our sewers if unused antibiotics are being flushed down drains in hospitals and other institutions – along with copious quantities of bacteria that tend to hang out in hospitals.
The problem of pharmaceuticals in our water supply in Colorado and throughout the US is scary and formidable. Drug companies should be required to implement safe systems for re-distribution of unused medications. Health insurance carriers should put pressure on pharmaceutical companies in this regard, since drugs that are getting flushed down the toilet weren’t free – and chances are they were either paid for by a private health insurance company or by the government. Pharmaceutical companies should stop pushing their wares on doctors, and shouldn’t be advertising to consumers either. If we could get to a point where prescriptions were seen as a last resort, and unused portions were always passed on to other patients, perhaps we wouldn’t need to worry about what’s coming out of our faucets.