There is no question that illicit and prescription drugs pose an environmental risk that can quickly get out of hand before we know it. But how does this affect our water supply? Most importantly, is drug waste damage to our water supply reversible? Here’s what you should know about the connection between drug disposal and our water supply and the risks involved in this delicate but important topic.

Warnings from the Water

Today, the threat of drug pollution in our water supply might seem like a conversation dedicated to drug smuggling from country to country. In one sense, this is true. For decades, large cargo ships have been used to smuggle drugs into the United States and abroad, and hiding places for drugs are hardly limited to the shipping containers on the deck. But the reason for this is not simply to avoid easy detection-it’s to buy crewmembers time to dump the drugs overboard if necessary.

In recent years, the drug smuggling business has transformed from ships above the surface to special narcotics submarines that seek to avoid detection by traveling beneath the ocean’s surface. These submarines are small, but they can carry millions of dollars worth of cocaine, meth, and other drugs. Many are drone submarines, meaning they can avoid human involvement if the ship is caught or sinks.

In both scenarios, the obvious conclusion is that dumping drugs overboard and losing submarines to the ocean floor means chemical hazards are making their way into our oceans. While these instances might seem like drops in the bucket, they present a clue for how we should think about the impact of drugs on our water supply.

Harvard Health points to the effects of aquatic life as a sign of long-term water pollution due to chemical hazards. The Potomac River in the Mid-Atlantic United States has concentrated areas of pollution. Research performed on some fish that swim near water treatment plants found concentrated amounts of antidepressant medication in their brain tissue and high levels of estrogen from birth control and postmenopausal hormone medication.

Disposal Issues

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 5 percent to 10 percent of pharmaceutical waste is hazardous. States are entitled to their own regulations, which can exceed the percentage the EPA sets. Unfortunately, these hazardous wastes can easily make their way into our water supply from improper disposal methods. These can include sinks, toilets, and regular trash cans.

To combat this, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was developed to provide the EPA with a “cradle-to-grave” protocol for hazardous waste disposal. Three years ago, a new rule from the EPA required healthcare facilities to avoid any drain flushing of pharmaceuticals and train anyone handling hazardous pharmaceutical waste.

Drug disposal
A new rule from the EPA required healthcare facilities to avoid any drain flushing of pharmaceuticals and train anyone handling hazardous pharmaceutical waste. Image source: Deposit Photos

While many of these risks involve commercial areas such as hospitals, there are also issues of rural concern. Drugs flushed down the toilet in rural areas can leak from backyard septic tanks into the ground, eventually creating hazardous waste conditions in aquifers. The situation is even more hazardous when neighborhoods are connected to water treatment plants and sent directly into rivers and lakes.

To many people’s surprise, water treatment plants are not equipped to remove medicines from the water supply. This means the risk of poor disposal can dangerously affect the water supply of countless individuals, not to mention marine life. States have typically warned their residents to avoid the unsafe disposal of various medications. However, the lists are never meant to be exhaustive.

Beyond the improper disposal of pharmaceutical waste, there is also the impact of illegal drug production. Meth production is one of the most widely known examples of illegal drug production that causes a massive and negative environmental impact.

One study states that each pound of meth production is responsible for 5 pounds of toxic waste. This toxic waste is not only the fumes and odor in the air but often the number of chemicals dumped in yards, toilets, and the woods.

What Can We Do?

What are we to make of all these startling facts? On the one hand, it’s easy to downplay the singular risk of drug smugglers dumping their supply overboard, the peculiar characteristics of some fish in the Potomac River, a hospital flushing unused medication down the drains, or a meth lab getting rid of its waste products. However, when these are considered together, they tell the big picture story of a growing risk of drug disposal and our water supply.

So what are the proper steps to take? To help with the level of toxicity involved in meth cleanup, the EPA has provided clear guidance to ensure safe cleanup methods occur. At the very least, this can educate the public on how to respond and support cleanup efforts and report suspicious activity signaling meth production, which should be reported immediately. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an online tool for finding drug take-back locations. These locations are safe drug disposal options for unused or expired medications, and they can go a long way in protecting our water supply from hazardous drug waste.

Finally, drug smuggling and meth labs exist because there is a market of people addicted to these hazardous drugs. The market demand for these hazardous drugs will continue as long as addiction is untreated. Because of this, it is important to support people through professional detox and addiction recovery programs. Together, these efforts can begin to reverse the negative impact of drugs on our water supply.


Kevin Morris

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.