The Great Lakes’ prescription drug pollution problem


Article from Gemma Hill

On the May 8 this year, local police services from the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service, the Ontario Provincial Police Service, the Anishinabek Police Service and the Batchewana Police Service joint forces for Prescription Drug Drop Off Day. The aim was to encourage people to bring their unused or expired prescription medications for safe disposal. One of the aims of the exercise was to highlight the dangers of prescription medication addiction and to redress the common thinking that prescription drugs are ‘safer’ than illegal drugs. With the number of people admitted to rehabilitation programs who are addicted to prescription drugs rising, this is certainly a big problem that needs to be addressed. However, the main aim of the exercise, though just as important, was unknown to many people. Around all the Great Lakes area, take-back programs were in effect to highlight the harmful environmental effects of unsafe disposal of prescription medicines.

A recent study entitled Protecting the Great Lakes from Pharmaceutical Pollution, has highlighted the economic and health concerns that of pollution arising from irresponsible disposal of prescription medicines. The study shockingly revealed that prescription drug pollution was present in groundwater and even drinking water in the Michigan area. The samples which were tested came from municipal water supplies in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Monroe all tested positive for pharmaceuticals.

It was not only the water supply that was contaminated. In Lake Michigan and Lake Milwaukee’s sewage outfall, prescription medicine contamination was also present. Scientists are concerned that the presence of the drugs will kill helpful bacteria in the lakes, encouraging the growth of larger, harmful bacteria and irrevocably damaging the ecosystem of the lakes which will have an impact on all organisms.

The importance of drug disposal programs
As individuals are not held responsible for unsafe disposal of prescription drugs there is no incentive in law to ensure safe disposal. The program in early May is part of a wider push to encourage people to behave responsibly. It hopes that raising awareness of the associated problem and providing a service for safe disposal would go some way to reducing the presence of pollution of this sort in the Great Lakes. Across the Great Lakes area, take-back programmes such as this are proving to be an effective approach to preventing prescription drug pollution. However, despite the readily available information, many individuals continue to dispose of their unused or out of date prescription drugs improperly.

Don’t water treatment plants filter out pollution of this type?
Unfortunately, not all water treatment plants use the same process to filter out pollution and some are better than others at filtering out the chemicals in medication. A recent study has shown that only half of the contamination from prescription drugs is filtered out by the current systems in use around the great lakes. The authorities are looking to improve this system but this is a slow process and encouraging people not to pollute with drug take-back programmes is the most effective way to reduce pollution. If the contaminants don’t reach the water in the first place then filtering is not as much of a problem.

What about making safe disposal of medication a law?
Some local governments are beginning to look at implementing safe disposal of prescription medication into laws that remove the financial burden of drug take-back initiatives from the taxpayer and make them the responsibility of the pharmaceutical companies. A so-called “producer responsibility” approach could be advantageous as many producers already have expertise in safe drug disposal. Such a law was passed in 2014, in California, USA. The requirements there are that any producer of prescription medication is duty-bound to offer a take-back scheme to patients. However, the drawback of this approach is that the producer will be likely to funnel the costs of disposal back into the price of the drugs.
Communication is key to success

Another problem with controlling pollution in the great lakes is the size of the area the lakes cover. The best approach would be to implement shared policies on prescription drug disposal and water treatment techniques that react to studies. The logistics of organising this over the local authorities in Canada, let alone across two countries, will prove challenging.

While prescription drug abuse and addiction often hits the headlines, harmful pollution from unsafe disposal of prescription drugs is not an issue known to many people. Hopefully, carefully organised take-back schemes and various initiatives o raise awareness of the issue will help reduce the problem and get the pollution out of Sault’s drinking water.