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How to safely dispose of unused medication

February 25th, 2019 by Isabella Miles

Looking for tips on how to safely dispose of unused medication? Isabella Miles has the answer

As a result of the the UK having an increasing and ageing human population, the discharge of pharmaceuticals into the environment is now recognised as one of the top issues of global conservation concern.

The cocktail of medicines leaching into British waterways are now being reported to have harmful effects on wildlife, and scientists have called for action on all fronts to protect wildlife. However, as many of the affected species are aquatic and therefore not often in public eye, the effects may pass unnoticed.The CHEM Trust sampled UK fish and amphibians and found chemical traces of birth control pills, antidepressants, sedatives, antibiotics and painkillers. The painkiller Ibuprofen affects reproduction of fish, and worryingly in a recent study, Ibuprofen was found at unacceptable levels in nearly 50% of samples of UK rivers. The common diabetic drug metformin as well as the contraceptive pill has also been ‘feminising fish’, meaning males appear to be producing eggs instead of sperm, which decreases their own ability to reproduce. 

Antidepressants are also known to affect other marine life, and can lead to disruption in the movement of snails, as well as abnormal aggressive behaviour in crayfish. They can also affect learning in cuttlefish, and spawning patterns in clams. These impacts have knock on effects on the rest of the food chain. 

A report by the Department of Health estimates that £300 million worth of unused medicines are wasted every year

Pharmaceutical drugs can move through the food chain and end up in larger quantities as they get eaten by larger species. Researchers at Cardiff University have found chemicals in otter tissue, which indicates their diet is being affected by drug waste. Many scientists believe it is crucial to act now, before consequences worsen, particularly as many of these consequences remain unknown, and may have future catastrophic effects on wildlife and biodiversity. Water quality scientists say “with these sorts of issues we generally don’t have the degree of surveillance we need until there is a population crash in a larger animal”.

This 'crash' happened in India during 1996-2007, when the population of vultures crashed due to millions being exposed to the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac which given to cattle. This drove the birds to near extinction when 40 million died. The uncertainty surrounding the future effects of pharmaceuticals in waterways raises the question, could we see this sort of decline in UK wildlife species?A report by the Department of Health estimates that £300 million worth of unused medicines are wasted every year, the World Health Organisation suggests adherence of prescription rates are around only 50%, and the NHS estimates around £90 million worth of unused prescriptions are being stored in homes and disposed of improperly.

But why flush? Many drugs are disposed of this way because of miscommunication. Flushing drugs down the toilet or drain was once the recommended practice to avoid children and animals being poisoned; however it's our rivers and wildlife that are being poisoned instead. 

How can you help?

Pharmaceutical waste in our waterways is a problem we can all reduce at the source. Let’s halt the problem, now. 


Isabella Miles is a final year student of a Wildlife Ecology and Conservation science degree at UWE Bristol.  She’s interested in the ways human behaviour can impact British wildlife. Her studies have prompted her to campaign to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of medicines in rivers. You can find her tweeting at @riversondrugs.

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