For a long time, it has been recommended to flush prescription pills and medications down the toilet. Understandably, this can help prevent children and pets from getting into them leading to irreparable damage. But allowing them to get into our waterways also raises some serious concerns.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found trace amounts of all types of pharmaceuticals in our lakes and streams and, while they come from several sources, the most common is from people flushing them down the toilet. Because treatment plants can’t always filter out drugs during treatment, these chemicals can unfortunately end up in our water supply.

Why Should We Be Worried?
Recent studies have found that pharmaceuticals can disrupt the behaviour and biology of fish and other aquatic life, even in low concentrations. A study in Environmental Science determined that male fish whose brains contained trace amounts of anti-depressants, such as Zoloft, exhibited less anxiety. It may be funny to think of a “stoned” fish, but this can be detrimental to their survival as it makes them less afraid and effective when trying to escape predators, and more likely to leave their school and swim straight into danger.

Medications such as birth control are also harmful to aquatic life. A study in Hormones and Behaviour discovered that male fish that were exposed to estrogen began to develop female traits. And though they still had the ability to reproduce, the “ladies” were not interested ☹

Apart from humans potentially eating pill-addled fish and encountering these chemicals, you may be wondering how else this can affect humans. Research shows an upsurge in estrogen-contaminated water which has been linked to an increased risk of men developing testicular cancer. This exposure starts as early as in the womb.

What Can We Do Instead?
The best alternative to flushing your pills and medications down the toilet is to hand them over to a drug-take-back program. In Grande Prairie, we are lucky to have the ENVIRx Program delivered through the Alberta Pharmacists’ Association. ENVIRx promotes the safe and effective use and return of drugs.

Pharmacists are well-versed in the risk of drug pollution and proper drug disposal. If you’re looking to return pills or medications, find a pharmacy near you.

If you are in an area that does not have a drug-take-back program you do have the option of throwing it out – but only if you do so very carefully (and know this is a last resort). The best way to do this is my crushing up the pills and medications and mixing them with an absorbent material such as coffee grounds or kitty litter (don’t flush this either!). Next, place it into a leak-proof container or double-bag it, and toss it in the trash. This will help keep people and pets away from it.