Earth Day, emerging water contaminants, and your medicine cabinet - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Earth Day, emerging water contaminants, and your medicine cabinet

Happy Earth Day everyone!  While our little planet exists the other 364 days of the year as well, the celebrations that take place today are a good prompt for mindfulness and hopefully a nudge toward rethinking personal and societal behavior. Ultimately, it's a good reason to stop and think about humanity's relationship to other species and ecosystems, and to question whether the ways we consume and dispose of resources really make sense for the long-term. 

With that in mind, here's a quick analogy for you— soil : people : : fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides : ???

The answer, of course, is pharmaceuticals (both prescription and recreational).  There is growing awareness that the chemicals and biological agents we apply to our crops and laws are not fully absorbed by soil or plants, and excess amounts can infiltrate into groundwater, or get captured in storm runoff and flow into surface waters.  Some of them break down over time, while others more or less stay in the system, often being ingested by microorganisms, which are ingested by macroorganisms, and so on back to our dinner plates.  Increasingly there are limits on the inclusion of things like phosphorous and nitrogen, and that's a good thing.

There's less awareness about the chemicals and biological agents we put directly into ourselves.Our bodies simply don't process the full dosage of all of the pharmaceuticals we ingest—we're all different sizes, have different metabolic rates, eat different meals, etc.  Anything we don't process, like with agricultural fertilizers, leaves the system and ends up in wastewater, rivers, and ultimately, our water supply.  Even worse, when people flush expired or excess drugs down the drain, those agents are not in any broken down by our digestive systems.

Here's the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency's description of the problem: "Trace amounts of pharmaceutical-related chemicals have been found in finished drinking water sampling done recently by Illinois EPA. While there are no specific standards, these amounts are not considered a hazard to human health at the levels found so far, with additional sampling planned. However, with the increased use of medications, such as by the large boomer generation, there is the potential for greater concentrations in the future if preventive steps are not taken."

While it's great that health and environmental agencies are responding to the problem, the fact remains that pharmaceuticals are not addressed by the U.S. Clean Water Act, and so there is no standard approach for dealing with them in the water treatment process.  Until that changes, the best we can do is try to keep them out of the water cycle as much as possible.

Other than getting prescription levels right (or perhaps, getting more exercise to speed your metabolism rate up), there isn't a whole lot to be done about our bodies' contribution to the problem.  There is, however, one mind-bogglingly easy solution to address flushing drugs down the toilet directly... don't do it.  Take your expired or unneeded drugs to a drop-off center.  Many drug stores accept expired meds, and increasingly police stations, fire stations, hazardous material sites, and wastewater treatment plants do as well.  Check in your town to see what's available.

Even better, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is holding its second annual National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on Saturday, April 30, 2011, from 10:00 am - 2:00 pmThey have a really user-friendly portal for finding a drop-off site near you.  In all of 10 second I found about 10 sites within a couple of miles from my place in Hyde Park.  Take a minute, find a site near you, spend some time looking through your medicine cabinet, and then drop it off next Saturday.  Just another free and easy way to be part of keeping our water clean.




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