Keeping pharmaceuticals out of our water

Research shows that medications are ending up in our rivers and drinking water.

My medicine cabinet at home is like a time capsule that perfectly preserves the remnants of every illness and ailment my husband and I have experienced over the past 12 years. There are Vicodin left over from his Achilles tendon tear in 2002, an antihistamine box labeled in Spanish from the time I was stung by a wasp in Spain in 2008, and some bottle of something labeled in Portugese that was given to us by a friend when Gary caught a vicious stomach bug in Brazil in 2011. When we moved to Stillwater this summer, I made a minimal effort to clear out the excess by consolidating five half-full bottles of Robitussin and several partial boxes of allergy medicine. Nonetheless, there is still a frightening array of prescription and over-the-counter medications lurking behind that mirrored door.

Old and unused medicines in the home can pose a risk for accidental poisoning or even theft leading to drug abuse. At the same time, recent research has shown that medication put in the trash or flushed down the toilet or sink can pollute our water and harm fish and wildlife. One problem is that our wastewater treatment plants, which are very effective at cleaning wastewater from our homes, are not equipped to remove pharmaceuticals from the water. So, while the water discharged from these plants into the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers may be clean enough to drink, it might also be laced with ibuprofen, antibiotics and other chemicals. Medications that end up in the trash at landfills can also work their way into our water if these landfills leach into groundwater supplies or the liquid that is collected from the landfills is treated in a sewage treatment plant.

Common sense tells us that having medicine in our water probably isn’t a good thing, but only a few studies have been conducted to determine how much pharmaceuticals are ending up in rivers and groundwater and what impacts these chemicals are having on humans and wildlife. What we have learned so far is a little frightening. In 2009, for example, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a study on the rate of intersex fish in nine river systems around the U.S.. During the course of their research, they found that 73% of the smallmouth bass they tested in the Mississippi River near Lake City, MN had characteristics of both sexes – the highest recorded rate in the study. Experts attributed this phenomenon to hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment such as pesticides, PCBs, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and even shampoos and detergents.

So do you keep medicines in your cabinet forever and risk accidentally poisoning yourself with 15-year old pseudoephedrine, or dump them down the toilet and risk turning a boy fish into a girl? Happily, for area residents, the answer is now neither. Washington County recently installed a year-round collection drop box for unused and expired medications just inside the entryway to the Law Enforcement Center in the Sheriff’s Office main lobby (15015 62nd St N, Stillwater, MN 55082). There is no paperwork to fill out and no ID required. The county is accepting prescription, over-the-counter, and pet medication in any form from households, and asks only that the medications be dropped off in their original containers and placed inside a sealed, clear plastic bag. When enough medications have been collected, the county will take them under law enforcement escort to a waste-to-energy facility in Minnesota that is licensed to burn this type of waste.

Having a free drop-off box is a good first step towards keeping pharmaceuticals out of our water, and the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment, as well as the Sheriff’s Office, hope that people will make ample use of the service. As for me, I might finally say goodbye to that eye ointment I gave my dog five or six years ago.

To learn more about the medication drop box, visit