Trace amounts of pain relievers, antibiotics, hormones, anti-depressants — and a plethora of illegal drugs — all end up in the nation’s streams and rivers and could even seep into our drinking water taps..
“Whatever we’re taking as medication, whatever we use in the shower or excrete as waste … low levels of those compounds often make it through the treatment process and into the natural environment,” said Mike Ekberg, a Miami Conservancy District scientist. “They get into water when we flush them down the toilet or when we rinse them down the sink.”
Studies show large fractions of pharmaceuticals — 30 to 90 percent of a dose depending on the drug — leave the body in urine. And up to a third of prescription doses are never taken by patients, who then often contribute to the problem by disposing of unused drugs improperly.
“We talk about it all the time, and it’s really important,” said Brianna Wooten, Montgomery County’s environmental services communications coordinator. “But I think a large number of people probably still flush pharmaceuticals down the toilet.”
Public health officials say they believe the drug levels are too small to pose risks to human health, but some researchers have detected changes in the reproductive organs of fish and mollusks downstream from wastewater treatment plants.
All agree more study is needed.
Daniel Snow, director of the Water Sciences Laboratory and professor of natural resources at the University of Nebraska, said he wouldn’t be surprised if opioid compounds — a byproduct of the opioid crisis — begin to slip through the treatment process.
“Would increasing use lead to increasing occurrence? I think that’s a safe assumption,” Snow said. “But we may not have enough data to confirm that’s the case.”