Groundwater Leaching and Proper Drug Disposal

April 10, 2023 | Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal

Any organization that handles prescription medications, from healthcare facilities to municipal governments to businesses, must be prepared for a growing problem—groundwater leaching. Over the last decade, studies have revealed a growing presence of pharmaceuticals in groundwater across the country. These chemicals pose risks to both human health and the environment, even in the low quantities they exist in, and contaminated groundwater has raised significant concerns among stakeholders, including regulators, producers, and the public.

The primary method of pharmaceuticals entering groundwater supplies is through leaching, the movement of contaminants carried by water down through permeable soil layers into groundwater sources. Groundwater leaching is a growing problem, and more federal and state authorities are taking steps to address the discharge of these chemicals through laws such as the federal Clean Water Act.

The largest focus of attention has been on healthcare providers, municipalities, and pharmaceutical producers who are responsible for the generation and disposal of large quantities of pharmaceutical waste. The issue is of greater concern for municipalities that often draw their water supply from groundwater sources.

Traditionally, most facilities disposed of unused or expired medication by simply flushing these pharmaceuticals down a sink or toilet; however, this allowed these wastes to enter surface waters and, as a result, groundwater. Because of this problem, the EPA has introduced new regulations prohibiting the sewering of these wastes, and more than ever before, stakeholders should take notice and introduce safe disposal procedures.

What Is Groundwater Leaching?

Groundwater leaching is the downward movement of contaminants through the soil and into the groundwater. This is a problem since groundwater does not dilute contaminants as quickly as surface water does. In fact, it may take tens to even hundreds of years for these chemicals to naturally be purified due to the lack of sunlight, cold temperatures, and other conditions affecting groundwater.

When facilities allow harmful chemicals to leach into groundwater, this can adversely impact the environment by exposing wildlife to a variety of biological and chemical contaminants. However, this can also be a particular problem for human life, given that one-third of the world’s population depends on groundwater for drinking water.

What Impact Does Improper Drug Disposal Have on Groundwater?

The effect of medical drugs released into the environment has only recently been studied. However, early studies indicate that the issue has begun affecting groundwater systems across the country. Healthcare Facilities, pharmaceutical producers, and other care providers, including veterinary and long-term care facilities, are responsible for releasing a significant part of these drugs due to improper disposal. Improper drug disposal, such as sewering, can release drugs into the environment. in part through municipal water treatment systems where they are processed and then discharged into receiving waters. Leaching from landfills is another entry method. Unfortunately, sewage treatment plants are not designed to remove drugs from the water they treat, and conventional treatment methods are only partially effective at decreasing their concentration.

Some sewage treatment may inadvertently reintroduce the drugs back into the environment, for example, the removal and reuse of waste sludge as a fertilizer. This shows the difficulty in preventing drugs from entering the environment when they are disposed of improperly, but what effect do they have once they are released?

Studies have found that these drugs can have adverse effects on wildlife, particularly aquatic creatures, including negative reproductive effects and behavioral changes. In the low concentrations currently present in groundwater, it is uncertain how much of a direct impact they may have on human health. However, second-hand consequences, such as the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains due to the release of antibiotics, are a highly significant public health concern.

What Are the Consequences of Allowing Drugs to Leach into Groundwater?

There are many consequences of allowing the leaching of chemicals, including drugs, into groundwater. This includes lawsuits by both government authorities, including state attorney generals and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as private citizens, often through costly class actions.

Organizations may also face both civil and criminal liability for improper disposal of drugs which leach into groundwater. This includes both fines and other penalties from state and federal authorities under environmental protection regulations such as the Clean Water Act (CWA), which can result in significant civil penalties, including up to $25,000 daily for violations, and the

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which can include penalties of up to $50,000 per day for each violation.

On August 21st, 2019, the EPA took special action against the improper disposal of drugs through sewering in a final rule. In this rule, 40 CFR, the EPA empowers the state, federal, and in some cases, local officials to enforce its requirements which prohibit healthcare facilities and reverse distributors from disposing of waste pharmaceuticals down the drain.

Localities are also not immune to enforcement actions for the release of these drugs. The CWA requires publicly owned treatment works to comply with pollution discharge requirements in addition to sources discharging waste and can face penalties of up to $25,000 daily under the CWA for the discharge of contaminants into waterways in violation of state and federal requirements. Although the Federal Government still recommends flushing some drugs, Rx Destroyer encourages facilities and at home users to use a drug deactivation product to ensure the longevity of our natural resources.

For this reason, it is crucial for all stakeholders, including municipal leaders, pharmacies, healthcare, and veterinary facilities, as well as other generators of pharmaceutical waste, to ensure the safe and compliant disposal of drugs.

How Can Groundwater Leaching Be Prevented?

In order to prevent chemicals such as prescription and over-the-counter drugs from leaching into groundwater, it is crucial to ensure that they do not make it into the water cycle at all even though the federal government still recommends sinking some drugs. It is crucial to not to flush or drain pharmaceuticals or over the counter medications. This means properly disposing of drugs through responsible methods that render them either inert, fully destroyed or non-retrievable.

One way to accomplish this is to utilize chemical digestion. This method uses solvents and activated carbon to break down the drug and adsorb nor absorb it, rendering it inert in an irreversible process. Rx Destroyer encapsulate and deactivates drugs.

Studies have shown that this process is able to effectively trap the majority of deactivated drugs, preventing them from washing out and allowing them to be safely disposed of with ordinary solid waste. This helps to ensure diversion and prevents potential environmental harm.

How Can Rx Destroyer Help?

Rx Destroyer is a simple and secure chemical digestive method of disposal that prevents harm to people and the environment by simply mixing unused and expired medications into the solution and gently shaking. The eco-friendly solvents and powerful adsorption forces of the activated carbon break down and trap the drugs and render them non-retrievable.

Rx Destroyer provides an easy and secure method that minimized diversion regardless of size and removes the need for complex reverse supply chains. Healthcare Providers, municipalities, and pharmaceutical producers can keep drugs out of waterways preventing the risks of groundwater leaching by using a responsible disposal method like Rx Destroyer.

See our Ground Water Leaching Test Data Here

With regard to pharmaceutical waste disposal and other regulated activities associated with pharmaceuticals, always follow applicable federal, state, local, and tribal laws/regulations.