July 02, 2024

Health Care Role in Preventing Water Pollution

The Unintended Destination of Pharmaceuticals

Along with many integral health care tools and processes, pharmaceuticals are a critical part of patient care and contribute to medical waste streams. A combination of new drugs being made available and more prescriptions being filled to care for a growing population has added to potentially dire effects on the environment, especially if pharmaceuticals are improperly disposed.

Expired and unused medications are often washed down sinks, flushed down toilets, thrown in regular trash, or discarded with non-hazardous medical waste, ending up in landfills or sewage treatment plants. Ultimately, this can lead to trace amounts of pharmaceuticals leaching into the surrounding environment and ultimately into our drinking water. According to the World Economic Forum, pharmaceutical pollution of the world’s rivers is much worse than they thought. It now poses a global threat to environmental and human health, according to new research.

Although researchers continue to examine human health effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment, negative impacts to fish and wildlife have already been seen, indicating how these pollutants may eventually affect humans. Fish that are exposed to a complex combination of drugs in their environment suffer adverse effects, including infertility, susceptibility to predation, reduced growth, weakening of defense systems, and organ or hormonal changes.

Health Care Organizations Can Take a Lead

To significantly curb the amount of dangerous drugs entering sewage treatment plants, landfills, and the environment as a whole, health care organizations should take a lead in addressing the issue, including having robust pharmaceutical waste programs in place. These programs involve closely complying with Health Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), which regulates controlled drugs and opioids while the Provincial Ministries of the Environment all have regulations on pharmaceutical waste disposal. These regulations specify how pharmaceutical waste must be classified and disposed of based on prescribed criteria and procedures.

Other agencies that regulate pharmaceutical waste disposal include Transport Canada, which covers how drug waste should be transported to waste management facilities.

Comprehensive pharmaceutical disposal programs ensure disposed drugs are rendered harmless before introduction into the environment, for instance, through incineration and other methods.

Making a Commitment to Sustainability

The growing environmental impact from the use of pharmaceuticals cannot be overlooked. By making a commitment to reliable, compliant pharmaceutical waste disposal through a robust program, health care organizations can become effective stewards of the environment and help limit pharmaceutical water pollution. At Stericycle, we’re dedicated to innovating new solutions that protect the environment and prevent pharmaceutical waste from entering waterways. We manage over 18 million kilograms of pharmaceutical waste annually for healthcare facilities of every size from small physician offices to the largest hospitals across the country. Learn more about our comprehensive pharmaceutical waste solutions that not only ensure reliable compliance, but also help minimize health care organizations’ environmental impact for generations to come.

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