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Over-the-Counter Culture: Why you shouldn’t flush medication down the toilet

Medication can be hazardous if they make their way into the water supply.
Medication can be hazardous if they make their way into the water supply. File Photo / Global News

If you follow the doctor’s orders, it’s easy to take prescription medication. The sometimes challenging thing is making sure you get rid of any remaining drugs properly.

If you don’t properly dispose of the prescription you could be endangering people and animals around you.

Jill Hardy, deputy registrar at the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba, said tossing the drugs in the garbage could be extremely dangerous.

“That’s a risk to the pets and children in the home but also when that garbage goes out into the community, it can put wildlife at risk.”

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Instead, Hardy said people should take advantage of the Manitoba medications return program.

WATCH: How to dispose of prescription drugs safely

National prescription drug drop-off day
National prescription drug drop-off day
“It’s a free program for patients to be able to bring their medications back [including] unused medications, expired medications and even over-the-counter products that are expired… or not being used.”
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Thanks to this initiative, you don’t even have to return the drugs to the same place where you got them.

READ MORE: Why you should stop throwing out your old or unused prescription drugs

“For confidentiality, it’s important that any patient names are off the medication. If you have a chance before you go to the pharmacy and remove labels, that would be very helpful,” Hardy said.

“Any pharmacy in the province will accept those medications.”

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She said it’s impossible to track exactly how many people dispose of unused medication correctly but she is seeing greater awareness among pharmacies and patients. In fact, some health care facilities take it upon themselves to destroy medication when needed.

“They have these small bins at the patient bedside for narcotics like fentanyl or other opioids,” Hardy described. “It’s really a carbon-based charcoal that will deactivate the medication when it enters a liquid.”

READ MORE: 5 tips for spring cleaning your medicine cabinet

Inevitably, some drugs will get thrown away or flushed down the toilet and eventually they end up in our water.

Jonathan Challis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at the University of Winnipeg. He works with researchers looking at contaminants in Manitoba’s rivers and lakes.

“You take a bottle out to the environment, dunk it in a river or lake and bring it back to the lab,” Challis explained. “Often that’s the most time consuming aspect of the whole process because we have to get the sample clean enough to analyze it on our very sensitive instruments.”

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Challis takes multiple samples from several sites in order to get accurate readings.

WATCH: What happens if you flush prescriptions down the toilet

What happens if you flush prescriptions down the toilet
What happens if you flush prescriptions down the toilet
“You can’t just go out to the Red River, sample once and publish that,” he said.”The study we just submitted is three years of monitoring the Red River, Lake Winnipeg and Norway House Cree Nation. [It’s] a nice story of what is happening to these chemicals once they get into the environment across a huge watershed.”

So far, the results aren’t too concerning. Mark Hanson, a University of Manitoba ecology professor said the concentration of chemicals and drugs in our waterways is very low.

“If you think about [taking] Tylenol, there was 500 mg in there and now we’re down to a few nanograms of Tylenol in the water,” he said. “You’d have to drink thousands of litres of water to get back to that one Tylenol [pill]. For fish and other [animals], the doses are typically not acutely toxic.”
University of Winnipeg PhD candidate Jonathan Challis examines machinery used to test water.
University of Winnipeg PhD candidate Jonathan Challis examines machinery used to test water. Tristan Field-Jones / Global News
Machinery at a University of Winnipeg lab used to look for contaminants in the water.
Machinery at a University of Winnipeg lab used to look for contaminants in the water. Tristan Field-Jones / Global News
Machinery at a University of Winnipeg lab used to look for contaminants in the water.
Machinery at a University of Winnipeg lab used to look for contaminants in the water. Tristan Field-Jones / Global News
Machinery at a University of Winnipeg lab used to look for contaminants in the water.
Machinery at a University of Winnipeg lab used to look for contaminants in the water. Tristan Field-Jones / Global News
A computer monitor displays results from water testing conducted at the University of Winnipeg.
A computer monitor displays results from water testing conducted at the University of Winnipeg. Tristan Field-Jones / Global News

Despite best efforts, some drugs will end up in the water no matter what. Charles Wong, a Canada research chair in ecotoxicology at the University of Winnipeg, said pharmaceuticals will enter our rivers and streams, regardless of how we get rid of them.

“Our body doesn’t necessarily degrade the drugs completely,” says Wong. “We will excrete it through the urine and the feces.”

“Water treatment plants generally aren’t designed to get rid of these chemicals. They’re designed to get rid of nutrients, particulates, bacteria, things like that.”

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Luckily Manitoba has a relatively low population so even untreated water is somewhat clean. However, Wong has done extensive research in China and he’s seen first hand what happens when a lot of people live in a small area and the water isn’t properly managed. It can lead to water contamination.

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READ MORE: Ripple effect: The Red River, what’s in the water and how safe is it?

“There’s 100 million people crowded into Guangdong province, which is smaller than Manitoba,” Wong said. “We’re talking concentrations of some of these chemicals out in the open waters that are higher than those in our water treatment plants.”

LISTEN: How you should safely get rid of your medication

Despite Manitoba’s track record when it comes to keeping our rivers and lakes clean, Hanson cautions we should never become complacent.

“The reason we’ve been able to achieve these successes is because we’ve been active in terms of trying to reduce those releases, have the appropriate treatments… and regulations,” He said. “We sort of forget this wasn’t just something that happened out of the blue. It was people thinking consciously in design, engineering and government, trying to make these things happen.”