How not disposing of medications properly impacts you

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(WSAW) -- Saturday, thousands of agencies across the country, including several in north central Wisconsin, will be opening their doors to collect people's unused and expired drugs as part of the National Drug Take Back Day.

Expired medication to be properly disposed.

If you have ever just thrown away or flushed medications down the toilet, you are adding to a problem that is growing in interest from researchers at a global and local level.

"We can find them (pharmaceuticals) in low concentrations, at least some of these, in ground water and in rivers," said Paul McGinley. He is a professor of Water Resources at UW-Stevens Point and a UW-Extension water quality specialist.

He said they have been monitoring pharmaceuticals in groundwater and surface water for about eight years.

"Pharmaceuticals can be pretty complicated molecules that are difficult for microorganism to break down," he explained. "A lot of our wastewater treatment plants operate on the principle of biologically degrading the material that enters the treatment plant. And while they can be 99% effective on many compounds, they can have a lot lower effectiveness when they're treating pharmaceuticals."

A lot of pharmaceuticals that get into the water come from the natural cycle they take after a person uses them, through excrement. Whatever is not treated at the wastewater plant eventually ends up into area waterways where humans, animals, and plants use regularly.

He said in their research, the amounts of pharmaceuticals they found in local wastewater varies from day to day, but concentrations are small.

"Example midpoint concentrations in municipal wastewater (all in micrograms per liter abbreviated here as ug/l) for acetaminophen ranged from approximately 20 ug/l at one facility to close to 100 ug/l at another, were approximately 70 ug/l to 80 ug/l for caffeine, approximately 0.8 to 1 ug/l for sulfamethoxazole and approximately 0.4 to 0.7 ug/l for trimethoprim," he said. "The mid-point concentrations of the artificial sweetener sucralose were approximately 50 micrograms/liter."

During treatment, McGinley explained, "the removal of pharmaceuticals varies by compound, in our work, for example, more than 95% of the acetaminophen and 80% of the caffeine was removed from the water during treatment, up to 30% of the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole was removed and less than 10% of the carbamazepine was removed."

According to the World Health Organization, with what is known right now, there is not an immediate risk for humans drinking water with traces of pharmaceuticals, though it says more studies need to be done to see how it affects people over time.

However, for organisms like fish that live in it daily, studies are finding it is affecting them. UW-Milwaukee researcher, Rebecca Klaper published a study about Lake Michigan's water in 2013 and stated the findings indicate pharmaceuticals in water are a significant threat to the Great Lakes.

In 2015, she also found a common type II diabetes medication is causing changes in fish, specifically finding male fish producing eggs.

With all of this in mind, there are several medication drop off locations throughout north central Wisconsin available regularly, and even more will be open Saturday for National Drug Take Back Day. Several area law enforcement agencies and pharmacies, like CVS, are participating in that event.