Oregon’s water is tested for suspended solids, certain chemicals and heavy metals — but not for pharmaceuticals.
With prescription drug use on the rise unused meds too often end up in the landfill or flushed down the toilet. In Oregon, Lane County agencies are stepping up their message of what to do with unwanted drugs.
Sarah Grimm, the waste reduction specialist for Lane County Public Works, said she's seeing a problem in her industry: pharmaceutical meds being flushed down the toilet.
“I continue to get reports from citizens who’ve heard from either a pharmacy or a health care provider telling them, ‘Oh well, if they don’t work for you, just flush 'em,” Grimm said.
Even the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's website continues to advise flushing some powerful meds down the toilet, to keep them out of the wrong hands.
"Reports from the environmental water quality side were increasingly noticing that pharmaceutical substances were showing up in the waterways,” Grimm said.
Sam Chan, a professor at Oregon State University and a watershed specialist, has been a part of numerous studies on the impact of drugs like pain relievers and antibiotics in our water. Chan describes what happened when mood altering drugs like Prozac were present in waterways.
“The fish became … I hate to use the word ‘happy,’ but … became less concerned about being in the open where they could be eaten by other fish," Chan said. "Mainly because the compounds, these anti-depressants, had altered their mood and made them less afraid.”
Chan worked on a Puget Sound study published last month. The results found juvenile salmon have a "creepy compound of drugs in their" tissue.
“I’m concerned. Based on the evidence that we see of increasing amounts of unused pharmaceuticals in the water, the fact that there’s so many of them occurring in mixtures …,” he said.
A national health survey found 15 percent of Americans are on five or more maintenance drugs — that’s known as poly-pharmacy use. Scientists now know that some of those drugs are getting into our water.
Municipal water systems are cyclical. Water is taken out of a source, distributed for use and then treated and pumped back into a river downstream.
For over 200,000 Eugene and Springfield residents, their drinking water source starts at the McKenzie River headwaters.
Nancy Toth, an environmental specialist with Eugene Water and Electric Board, has read plenty about how aquatic life is affected by pharmaceuticals in water. But she and her colleagues can only wonder how people are impacted.
“There aren’t any long-term studies that look at long-term effects of low levels of various combinations of pharmaceuticals on human health. And it is very expensive to monitor for these pharmaceuticals and it is not required,” Toth said.
That's right, it’s not required. Toth said when large scale testing is done, they do find traces of drugs in waterways. She recalled a U.S. Geological Survey study.
"They found chemicals or pharmaceuticals in over 80 percent of the streams and rivers they tested,” Toth said.
She said Eugene/Springfield residents are fortunate in a couple ways. First, there's the excellent water source quality.
And second, she said: "We're lucky to not be downstream of any waste water treatment plants."
But tens of thousands of other Oregonians are.
Once McKenzie River water (and anything that's put in it) goes down the drain or toilet, it's gathered as "black water” at the Metropolitan Wastewater facility in west Eugene.
Every day, 25 million gallons of waste water pass through a series of pipes and tanks. First, solid materials are separated out. They call them the “three Ps.”
"We get poo, pee, paper," said Michelle Miranda, a supervisor with Eugene's Waste Water Division. She knows pharmaceutical starts with a "P" too but it is NOT on the list of what can be flushed. She said waste water managers all over the region have shared their concerns about the issue for years.
"We've detected low levels of these substances through the water bodies. But it's 'OK, what does that mean now?'" she said.
Miranda wants to be clear — when pharmaceuticals have been found in waterways, they are at low levels —nanograms not micrograms. Not enough to panic?
Well, how much of someone else's medicine is acceptable in your drinking water?
The message is the same from water, waste and environmental agencies: coordinated prescription drug disposal is the best way to keep meds out of waterways.
Down a hallway at the Lane County Sheriff’s office in downtown Eugene stands a green metal box with the message “Deposit Your Unwanted Prescription Drugs Here.”
Cari Soong is an evidence technician with the department.
“This box gets filled up weekly," she said.
Soong said this confidential drug take back program can be a comfort for people who have lost someone.
“When people come in they usually tell us, ‘We’ve got some serious medications because the person was on hospice,’ And it’s alright, you know, we can help them with that.”
Once this box and the others managed by Eugene and Springfield law enforcement are full, the thousands of pounds of meds are transported to Brooks, Oregon, where they are incinerated.
In late 2014, the DEA relaxed rules on where these boxes can be. Now pharmacies are allowed to operate them.
For the time being, law enforcement officers like Soong hope unused pharmaceuticals, controlled substances, over the counter drugs, even veterinary meds, will find their way to existing drop boxes for safe disposal.
“The reason we have it is to keep the pills and the medications out of the wrong hands, out of the waterways,” Soong said.
Waste and water managers work in conjunction with public health and law enforcement, to create and maintain these safe drug disposal sites. They implore us to use them because they don't want their hard work to go down the toilet either.