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Series on drugs from Northwest News Network.

Don't Flush 'Em! Oregon's Water Not Tested For Pharma

Oregon’s water is tested for suspended solids, certain chemicals, heavy metals, but not for pharmaceuticals. With prescription drug use on the rise --way too often-- unused meds end up in the landfill or flushed down the toilet. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert reports on how Lane County agencies are stepping up their message of what to do with unwanted drugs.

Sarah Grimm is the waste reduction specialist for Lane County Public Works.

She's seeing a problem in her industry: pharmaceutical meds being flushed down the toilet.

(Sound of toilet flush)

Grimm: “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.”

Even the federal Drug Enforcement Agency website continues to advise flushing some powerful meds down the toilet, to keep them out of the wrong hands.

Grimm: “Reports from the Environmental Water Quality side were increasingly noticing that pharmaceutical substances were showing up in the waterways.”

Dr. Sam Chan is a professor at Oregon State University and a watershed specialist. He 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.

Chan: “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. Mainly because the compounds, these anti-depressants, had altered their mood and made them less afraid.”

Dr. Chan worked on a Puget Sound study published last month. The results found juvenile salmon have a *creepy compound of drugs in their *tissue.  

Chan: “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…”

(Water sounds)

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/Springfield residents, their drinking water source starts here:  the McKenzie River headwaters.

Nancy Toth is an environmental specialist with Eugene Water and Electric Board. She’s read plenty about how aquatic life is affected by pharmaceuticals in water. But she and her colleagues can only wonder how people are impacted.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
EWEB water specialist Nancy Toth along the Willamette River.

Toth: “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.”

That's right, it’s not required. Toth says when large scale testing is done, they do find traces of drugs in waterways. She recalls a U.S. Geological Survey study.

Toth: "They found chemicals or pharmaceuticals in over 80% of the streams and rivers they tested.”

Toth says Eugene/Springfield residents are doubly lucky. First there's the excellent water source quality…

Toth: "And we're lucky to not be downstream of any waste water treatment plants."

But tens of thousands of Oregonians are…

(Sound of water)

Once McKenzie 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 P’s.”

Michelle Miranda: "We get Poo, pee, paper."

Michelle Miranda is 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 says waste water managers all over the region have shared their concerns about the issue for years.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Michelle Miranda at one point of the treatment process at the Metropolitan Waste Water facility campus on River Road in Eugene.

Miranda: "We've detected low levels of these substances through the water bodies. But it's 'ok, what does that mean now?'"

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.

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?

(sheriff office room sounds)

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.”

(sound of pill bottles and slamming metal door)

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Cari Soong is Evidence Technician for Lane County Sheriff Department. This is the drug disposal box they empty weekly. The meds are incinerated in Brooks, OR.

Cari Soong is an evidence technician with the department.

Soong: “This box gets filled up weekly.”

Soong says this confidential drug take back program can be a comfort for people who have lost someone.

Soong: “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 Cari Soong hope unused pharmaceuticals, controlled substances, over the counter drugs, even veterinary meds, will find their way to existing drop boxes for safe disposal.

Soong: “The reason we have it is to keep the pills and the medications out of the wrong hands, out of the waterways.”

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.

Lane County Drug Drop Boxes

More information on drugs and water

Environmental Health - Toxic Sustances

Waste water pointers!


Comment from EWEB- "While it is true that there are no requirements or standards for testing for pharmaceuticals in water, EWEB has done some testing for the more common substances and found only trace amounts, caffeine, for instance. This is a new area of water quality monitoring and one that we will continue to pursue voluntarily. Prevention is truly the most effective strategy to keep our water clear of contaminants, as we all live downstream."

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked in a variety of media including television, technical writing, photography and daily print news before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
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