It’s no secret that the medications prescribed by doctors aren’t always healthy for us, but their disposal is even harmful for the environment. Whether it’s through the natural process of digesting these medications or disposing of them in the trash, both have had lasting effects on the creatures that inhabit the earth.

There have been various environmental issues tied to some of the most widely used prescriptions: birth control and antidepressants. From women who try to prevent pregnancies to those suffering from depression, taking a daily pill can help solve their problem.

Over the course of the day the contents from any given pill pass chemicals through to the urine, which is then flushed down the toilet. Most of the contents are filtered out, but the rest is then disposed into our wastewater treatment facilities.

Research has focused on the environmental impact of estrogen and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the active ingredient in antidepressants. According to a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, estrogen has been linked to the feminization of male fish.

The study showed that constant exposure to these chemicals led male fathead minnows to become feminized. The results of which showed evidence of gender androgeny in males and altered how females produce eggs. Ultimately, this leads to the species being nearly extinct. The observations demonstrate that the concentrations of estrogens observed in freshwaters can impact the sustainability of wild fish populations.

Women do create estrogen naturally, but the hormones they are adding to their body in the form of birth control pills don’t help at all. Women can switch to a progestin-only contraceptive pill, which will cut down the amount of estrogen they have in their bodies.

A study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft were found in the brains of fish, which affected their behavioral and feeding patterns. The study stated they were collected downstream from wastewater discharge in Colorado and Iowa.

Antidepressants can even change the behavior of shrimp. Shrimp were five times more likely to swim toward light instead of away from it, making them more likely to be eaten by fish or birds, which could have devastating effects on the shrimp population, according to ScienceDaily.com.

In San Francisco, the Department of the Environment and the Public Utilities Commission began a program called the Safe Medicine Disposal pilot program that will help combat the environmental issues tied to the improper disposal of prescription drugs. The program has collected more than 10,000 pounds of unused medicine that would have contaminated the landfill.

Birth control methods are very important, especially when it comes to preventing unplanned pregnancies, while antidepressants and medications assist in treating symptoms of mental illness. It’s vital to have a program in place and for cities to adopt a safe medicine disposal program to curb one of the ways medications find their way into the environment.

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Elissa Torres

Elissa Torres