Protecting the Great Lakes 4 Million Times

[Post author: Wayne Duke]

“Collect 1 Million Pounds of e-waste and 1 Million Unwanted Pills” was the US EPA’s 2008 Earth Day Challenge to residents, businesses and communities around the Great Lakes. Thousands of residents responded by participating in events to properly dispose of unwanted medicines and to collect and recycle electronic waste during the week of April 19 -27, 2008. The 2008 Earth Day Challenge collected the equivalent of 4,400,000 pills and approximately 4,950,000 pounds of e-waste, as reported by 23 unwanted medicine events and 33 e-waste collection events that were held around the Great Lakes (see Tables 1 & 2). The response to the call for events by the US EPA Great Lakes National Program Office was overwhelming and demonstrates the strong interest Great Lakers have in their Lakes, their communities and doing the right thing for their environment.

Why do we want to keep medicines out of the trash and our wastewater (the toilet, sink and septic)? In the United States, sales of over-the-counter medicines have increased by 60% since the 1990s.[1]  In 2006, the U.S. prescription volume rose to 3.7 billion prescriptions.[2] With these increases come concern about the fate and effects of these compounds in the environment. Recent studies have identified a wide range of pharmaceutical chemicals in rivers and streams nationwide,[3]  and it has also been shown that some of these compounds are potentially harmful to aquatic organisms, affecting reproduction and development even at low concentrations.[4] The fate of pharmaceutical chemicals in sewage sludge is also of concern, as sludge from wastewater treatment is often applied to agricultural land as a fertilizer. The long-term impacts of medicine disposal on our health and the health of the environment are not fully known. However, unless action is taken, the quantity of these chemicals reaching our waterways will continue to increase as pharmaceutical usage increases.[5]

[1] Ann Pistell, Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Presentation at Northeast Water Science Forum, August 9, 2007.

[2] “IMS Intelligence.360: Global Pharmaceutical Perspectives 2006”, IMS Health Report, February 22, 2007.,2777,6599_40183881_81567488,00.html

[3] Kolpin, Dana W., et al. “Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and Other Organic Wastewater Contaminants in U.S. Streams, 1999-2000: A National Reconnaissance.” Environ. Science and Technology. Vol. 36 no. 6 (2002): pp. 1202-1211.

[4] For example, see Nash, Jon P., et al. “Long-Term Exposure to Environmental Concentrations of the Pharmaceutical Ethynylestradiol Causes Reproductive Failure in Fish.” Environmental Health Perspectives. 112.17 (2004): pp. 1725-1733.

[5] Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, “Disposal of Unwanted Medicines: A Resource for Action in Your Community.” Februrary 2008. p. 2

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