How to keep our streams and drinking water off drugs

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Q How do pharmaceuticals end up in our drinking water, and what can we do to prevent it?

A How can I put this gently? We’re druggies, that’s how. Canadians spent $20 billion on prescription drugs in 2005, according to UBC’s Rx Atlas, and that doesn’t even include all the pills we bought over the counter. Our poor eating and living habits are clearly catching up to us, if our massive spending on cholesterol drugs and antidepressants is any indication.

But aren’t we just treating and, depending on who you ask, polluting our own bodies? What does the planet have to do with it? Turns out, lots. Those meds aren’t fully processed by our cells, so we basically pee and poop them out. Sewage treatment plants do break down a good deal of the crap lurking in our crap, but just as in our bodies, not all of it biodegrades. Anti-seizure drugs, for instance, basically pass through the sewage treatment process unscathed. Drug residues then end up flowing into our rivers, lakes, oceans and, yes, taps.

And don’t forget to factor in that raw sewage spills into our waterways untreated every time there’s a major storm or broken pipe. (You know, like the one recently discovered to be dumping toilet water straight into Taylor-Massey Creek).

Which brings us to the question of exactly what’s hiding in our drinking water. Lots. Think cancer drugs, cholesterol meds, ibuprofen, antidepressants and birth control hormones. All at very, very low concentrations, but that doesn’t mean wildlife isn’t being affected. Indeed, several Canadian and American studies have found that birth control hormones are feminizing male fish. Who needs Halloween horror movies when you can read a report about male carp producing egg-yolk proteins?

Even drugs that break down quickly have become permanent fixtures in our water systems because we keep flushing new ones down our shower drains and toilets every day. Hence their description as “pseudo-persistent.” The good news is that if we cut back, they won’t be there.

And that brings me to my first tip: avoid using pharmaceuticals unless you really need them. And work on reducing your chances of getting sick right out of the gate. You know the drill: stop smoking, eat your greens, give up junk food and sugar and pick up speed-walking, lunchtime yoga and morning sex (hey, a happy heart is a healthy heart!).

What if you have a bunch of old expired drugs kicking around and you want to clean out your medicine cabinet? First, do not – I repeat, do not – flush them down the toilet. They’re contaminating our water supply. Health officials don’t want you tossing them in your wastebasket either, since your pills might end up leaching from landfill and contaminating groundwater.

The city encourages you to bring your expired meds to a hazardous waste depot (for depot locations, see www.toronto. ca/garbage/depots. htm). From there, they’re trucked to a “chemical landfill” in New York State fortified to take hazardous waste. If you bring them to one of the city’s Enviro Days, they’re sent to a “state-of-the-art” medical incinerator in Brampton that claims to have many scrubbers and filters (as well as electronic emissions analyzers atop the stack itself) (see

Pharmacies like Shoppers, IDA and Guardian also take your expired drugs and deal with them similarly.

While burning and dumping them this way seems a little dodgy, it’s certainly better than burning and dumping them in regular municipal facilities not designed to handle toxic waste. Ideally, we’d have a provincially mandated take-back program for pharmaceuticals, as other provinces do – but we don’t. Bug your MPP about this.

Keep in mind that pharmaceuticals aren’t the only things being flushed and washed down the drain. Some of the chemicals in our lotions and hair sprays are also turning up downstream. DEET is the third-most-common contaminant in streams, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Caffeine comes in fourth, and a chem found in antibacterial washes, toothpastes and more (triclosan) is fifth.

Freaked out? Keep ridding your life of unnecessary chemicals and turn to simple organic products when you brush your teeth, wash your hair and the rest. Oh yes, and don’t forget to lobby all levels of government for serious pollution controls on industry, which spews barrels of toxins into our air and water every day.

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