Treat outdated medicine like toxic waste

April 20, 2000

It's enough to make me sick, and pills are no help. In fact, they're part of the problem.

It seems that the medicine we flush down our toilets is not good medicine for the environment.

The Scripps Howard News Service reported recently that researchers in Germany found that "medicines eliminated from the body in human wastes and flushed down toilets are drugging lakes and streams with possibly bad effects on wildlife."

The story quoted the researchers as saying the drug levels in drinking water are minute and pose no human health problem.

But they are concerned that "human pharmaceutical and personal-care products harm fish, aquatic life that fish rely on for food, and other wildlife."


No one knows how much medicine we Americans dump into our commodes; it hasn't been studied in this country. But I suspect we are giving the Germans a run for their money.

It's bad enough that a lot of medicines end up in our commodes after they're, ahem, processed by our digestive systems. I can't think of any reasonable alternatives to that.

But I'm concerned by all the medicines that we simply dump into the toilet bowl, straight out of the bottle, as a means of disposal.

I'm sorry to say that some folks actually recommend doing that. A Heloise column that ran in The Herald-Mail at the end of last year said, "Flush them down the commode so there is no chance of throwing them away and having a child or pet get into them."

Surely the commode is not the only place in the house that's child- and pet-proof.

The medicines are supposed to be in child-proof bottles to begin with. I certainly have a heck of a time opening them.

If I decided to throw away some medicine, I'd follow my standby rule for the disposal of toxic wastes. I'd leave them in their containers and put them in the trash just before I took it out for disposal.

If they were liquids, I'd put something absorbent, like kitty litter, in the bottle. That way, if the bottle broke in the landfill, there wouldn't be any fluids to seep into groundwater.

Lest you think I'm being excessive here, let me point out that I'm not alone.

A Hagerstown reader of this column, who alerted me to the problem, wrote that "I can't help but think there has to be a better place than the commode to dispose of old or outdated medicines without polluting the Chesapeake Bay."

Apparently this reader shares my general philosophy of environmental concern: "Better safe than sorry."

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write to him at 12364 Harvey Road, Clear Spring, Md. 21722.

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