HR july 2015

Published in the Hauppauge Reporter

On May 28, 2015, the HIA-LI Environmental/Green Industries Committee presented a well attended program entitled “Pharmaceuticals in Our Waters”.  The program was held at the Education Center of the Suffolk County Water Authority in Hauppauge and was followed by a tour of the lab facility where the Authority does its water testing.

The disposal of pharmaceuticals is a growing area of concern in our over-medicated society.  According to Adrienne Esposito, Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, nearly 4 billion prescriptions are filled in the US each year, of which about one third or 200,000 pounds are unused. Trace amounts of these drugs enter our surface and ground waters from various sources, including landfill leachate, animal feedlots, aquaculture, land application of organic materials, pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, and deliberate flushing.  Most ubiquitous of all, the pharmaceuticals pass through our bodies and are secreted, ending up in cesspools and sewage treatment plants, neither of which are equipped to filter or treat them.  Studies relating to the impacts of these substances and of personal care products are still few and far between.  However, according to Douglas Feldman, Chief of the Office of Water Resources of the Suffolk County Health Department, some of these compounds are known to mimic naturally occurring hormones and affect normal hormone activity. A limited number of studies have reported disruptions of the endocrine system in animals and the “feminization” of fish.

Scott J. Stoner, Melissa Treers and Bill Ottaway from the Albany office of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)  gave an overview of current regulations applicable to pharmaceutical disposal.  The DEC has focused its efforts on a public awareness program advising people not to flush their unused or expired medications.  Instead, the public is urged to return them to collection events, where available, or mix them with something such as coffee grounds, cat litter or dirt, seal them in containers, and put them in the garbage.  In addition, people can  bring their unused medications and deposit them in drop boxes installed in police stations statewide or to municipal collection events.    A new option for Long Island residents is to bring the drugs to local King Kullen pharmacies, which accept everything, except for controlled substances. (Use this link to find participating police and supermarket locations:  According to Ms. Esposito, about half a million pills were collected in the first five months of the King Kullen program, and a recent grant will enable the store to continue it for the next three years.

Pharmacies and hospitals usually send back their unused or expired medications to reverse distributors.  However, if the drugs have the characteristics of hazardous substances (e.g. warfarin, nicotine, alcohol, mercury, acids) and are classified as waste, then the State hazardous waste regulations apply to their disposal.   Last year, the DEC created an audit program for pharmacies, allowing them 12 to 18 months to come into compliance and deferring inspections and enforcement. In addition, new hazardous waste regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are expected to be issued in this month.

A separate effort is being made for the collection of unused medications from long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes. For a long time, the preferred method of disposal was flushing. In fact, it is still approved for controlled substances by the New York State Department of Health, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE).  This is because BNE imposes restrictions on the movement of narcotics, and nursing homes may not return them to the pharmacies that issued them or dispose of them as solid waste, but rather, are required to render them totally “unrecoverable and beyond reclamation”. In recent years, there has been an effort to curtail the practice of flushing.  The Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used to conduct bi-annual collection events for controlled substances, ie. narcotics. Unfortunately, these have recently been discontinued.  The DEC has picked up where the DEA left off, organizing special collection events.  The first such event on Long Island took place in February 2015, yielding 52 boxes of waste medications collected for proper disposal by DEC’s Region 1 environmental enforcement personnel.  A more permanent solution is expected to come soon when BNE issues regulations implementing the October 2014 rules of the DEA.  These rules expand disposal options for ultimate users, such as long term care facilities, by allowing them to participate in mail back programs or other methods for the return of unused drugs.

The Suffolk County Health Department, which collects water samples from public and private wells and from groundwater monitoring wells, currently analyzes for about 30 pharmaceuticals and personal care products. To date, 25 of these have been detected in very small concentrations (less than 1 microgram per liter), with the most detections being in private wells.   Currently, there is no regulatory standard for these compounds, so the standard applied is the catch-all 50 parts per billion for unregulated contaminants, explained Amanda Comando, of the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA).  The SCWA, which operates 550 wells, currently tests for 26 pharmaceutical compounds of concern and hopes to expand the list to 47 by the middle of this year.

In the tour of the lab facility that followed the presentations, participants were shown how water samples taken from SCWA’s 550 wells are analyzed for a variety of possible pollutants.  Chlorine is used to treat bacteria and carbon filters to remove other types of contaminants in affected wells. The SCWA spends about $3.5 million on water treatment.

A lot of questions still remain unanswered.  What are the cumulative impacts on animals, fish and humans of trace levels of pharmaceuticals in our surface waters and in drinking water?  Should there be specific standards? What about compounds for which there is no current testing?  How can the efforts of individual groups and municipalities be combined for greater efficiency and impact?  What filters or treatment methods are being developed to purify the water for human use?  Hopefully, some of these questions will be answered as more public attention is focused on this emerging health issue.