Can pharmaceuticals be removed by wastewater treatment plants? Why is National Drug Take Back Day so important?

Can pharmaceuticals be removed by wastewater treatment plants? Why is National Drug Take Back Day so important?

What do you do with old, expired or unwanted medicine? The method of disposal could have a major impact on your local environment, especially your water source. 

People mistakenly believe that disposing of medications down the toilet is a safe and efficient way of getting rid of the drugs. However, toilets, septic systems, and wastewater treatment plants are designed to handle water, waste, and easily degradable toilet paper. 

Flushing prescription medications down the toilet can negatively affect the environment and public health. When flushed down the toilet, these medications can end up in water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, and oceans, and may contaminate water supplies, harm aquatic life, and affect ecosystems. 

Wastewater treatment plants play a critical role in protecting public health and the environment by removing contaminants from wastewater before it is discharged into the environment or reused. 

While wastewater treatment plants can remove some chemicals, some wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, or drinking water treatment plants are not currently designed to remove pharmaceuticals from the water completely.

Wastewater treatment plants use a series of physical, chemical, and biological processes to remove contaminants from wastewater and produce treated water that is safe to discharge into the environment or reuse. Some of the contaminants that a wastewater treatment plant can remove from water during treatment include:

  1. Suspended solids: These are solids that are suspended in the wastewater and can be removed through physical processes.
  2. Organic matter: Wastewater treatment plants can use biological processes to remove organic matter, such as human and animal waste, food waste, and other organic compounds.
  3. Nutrients: Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can be removed through biological and chemical processes.
  4. Pathogens: Wastewater treatment plants can remove pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa through physical, chemical, and biological processes.
  5. Metals and chemicals: Some wastewater treatment plants use chemical treatment processes to remove heavy metals and other chemicals from wastewater.

Wastewater treatment plants are highly effective at removing a wide range of contaminants from wastewater; however, there are some substances they may not be able to completely remove. 

Here are some examples:

  1. Certain chemicals: Wastewater treatment plants are not always able to remove all types of chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and industrial chemicals, from wastewater. These substances can end up in treated water, potentially affecting human health and the environment.
  2. Microplastics: Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are present in personal care products, synthetic fabrics, and plastic pollution. Some plants may not be able to remove some microplastics through filtration or sedimentation; many microplastics can pass through the treatment process and end up in treated water.
  3. Excess nutrients: Some treatment plants may be unable to remove all the nutrients in the wastewater, leading to harmful algal blooms in the receiving water body.

How to properly dispose of unneeded and outdated prescription drugs

An effective way to reduce the number of chemicals in our water is by curbing household disposal of pharmaceuticals into our water systems. 

On Saturday, April 22, 2023, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., you will be able to drop off those unwanted medications with professionals who will dispose of them safely and properly. This effort is part of “National Take Back Day” conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other government and public safety officials. The disposal services are free and anonymous for consumers, with no questions asked.

There are numerous places in the Brazos River basin where you can safely dispose of unwanted medicines. 

In Parker County, the Weatherford police department will be at the WISD 9th grade center front parking lot. 

In Williamson County, the Cedar Park police department will be taking medications at the police department. 

To find a collection site near you, click here and type in your zip code. Officials are continuously adding drop-off locations, so check back often if you don’t see a location near you. 

If there is not a local drop-off location near you, there is a safe alternative to disposing of your prescription medication. Steps to dispose of prescription medications safely: 

  1. Remove the medication from its original container, crush it, and mix it with undesirable substances such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. 
  2. Place the mixture in a sealable bag or other container to prevent the medicine from leaking or breaking, 
  3. Throw the sealed container in the trash.

While water treatment plants can remove some chemicals, they are not typically designed to remove pharmaceuticals. Fortunately, you do not need to become a wastewater expert to know what not to put down the drain. Properly disposing of your prescribed medications can help conserve your local water resources and protect environmental health for years to come.