Wildlife Put at Risk from Dumping of Pharmaceuticals

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
(photo: Passaic River Basin)

Hundreds of millions of pounds of pharmaceuticals are dumped into wastewater systems each year, posing serious threats to many species and ecosystems, researchers say.


Multiple studies show that drugs discarded into systems carrying human and animal waste have contaminated the environments upon which wildlife depends. In some cases, the consumption of pharmaceuticals can prove deadly for animals.


The antidepressant fluoxetine has caused starlings to spend less time foraging for food, one study found, while contraceptives flushed into lakes have reduced fish populations.

Other research has revealed anti-inflammatory drugs fed to cattle in India can wind up killing vultures that feed on the animals’ carcasses.


Drugs are often disposed of in wastewater systems by hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and other facilities where many people are on medication. There’s currently no rule that forbids this practice and as a result, some facilities dispose of 1,000 or more pills a month in this way.


Drugs make their way from sewer systems into waterways where even trace amount of pharmaceuticals can have a negative effect on wildlife.


“With thousands of pharmaceuticals in use globally, they have the potential to have potent effects on wildlife and ecosystems,” Kathryn Arnold of the University of York, told The Guardian. ”Given the many benefits of pharmaceuticals, there is a need for science to deliver better estimates of the environmental risks they pose.”


The Environmental Protection Agency is working on a proposal to manage pharmaceutical waste, but any rule might be a long time coming. The agency attempted to impose standards in 2008, but never finalized the rule.

Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Drugs Flushed into the Environment Could be Cause of Wildlife Decline (by Damian Carrington, The Guardian)

Pharmaceutical Dumping Could Pose Risks to Wildlife, Scientists Warn (by Sarah Lazare, Common Dreams)

Health Care Industry Sends Tons of Drugs into Nation's Wastewater System (by Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza and Justin Pritchard, Associated Press)

Assessing Risks and Impacts of Pharmaceuticals in the Environment on Wildlife and Ecosystems (by Kathryn E. Arnold, A. Ross Brown, Gerald T. Ankley and John P. Sumpter, Royal Society) (abstract)

Pollution from Drug Manufacturing: Review and Perspectives (by D. G. Joakim Larsson, Royal Society) (abstract)

Medicating the Environment: Assessing Risks of Pharmaceuticals to Wildlife and Ecosystems (by Kathryn E. Arnold, A. Ross Brown, Gerald T. Ankley and John P. Sumpter, Royal Society) (abstract)

Fighting Drug Take-Back Program, Big Pharma Says Dump Your Meds in the Trash (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

Dumped Drugs Pollute U.S. Water—Legally (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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