Keeping Chemicals Out of Rivers

Representative Slaughter Introduces Pharmaceutical Stewardship Act

prescription medicines

A few summers ago, I spent a day paddling down the Schuylkill River. Not along the scenic headwaters, as you might imagine, but right in downtown Philadelphia. There’s nothing quite like seeing a city from the river in a kayak! Across the country, people are getting back to their urban rivers. Even along the Los Angeles River, better known for its roles in the movies, people are taking the first authorized paddling trips in almost 70 years.

As we paddled along past the Art Museum and up to Fairmount Water Works, I couldn’t help but notice the inescapable signs of an urban river – from the concrete walls lining the river channel to the trash floating beside us. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of nasty stuff floating along the Schuylkill and other urban rivers that we can’t see, but that is just as concerning.

The City of Philadelphia, like many older urban communities relies upon a combined sewer system which, when overloaded by heavy rainfall, releases a mixture of stormwater runoff and raw sewage containing prescription drug residues, pesticides, and bacteria. Many cities like Philadelphia are already addressing these problems by incorporating green infrastructure practices to capture and treat rainwater where it falls and keep pollutants out of our rivers, lakes, and streams.

Pharmaceutical drugs are of particular concern because not only have they been found in surface waters, but they may also be present in our drinking water. In 2008, the Associated Press released a report that found that pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater compounds (OWCs) were found in the drinking water supplies for 24 metropolitan areas, affecting over 41 million people. Although very low concentrations of these compounds are present, chronic exposure could lead to adverse health effects for people and aquatic organisms that are continuously exposed to them.

Last week, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced the Pharmaceutical Stewardship Act (H.R. 2939) that establishes a national pharmaceutical take back program financed by producers to reduce the supply of unused and expired medications. This is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to keep chemicals out of our waters by preventing drugs from entering our waters where we swim, boat, fish, and get our drinking water supplies from in the first place.

Establishing a national drug take back program is a positive step to keeping chemicals out of our rivers, lakes, and streams so that they’re safe for swimming, fishing, and as sources for drinking water. Even if you can’t see them when you’re paddling down a river, keeping drugs like antibiotics, blood pressure medicine, antidepressants, and endocrine disruptors out of our rivers is just as important as cleaning up the trash that you can see.