Officials are taking action against hospitals and nursing homes for disposing of drugs in sewers and landfills
Regulators taking more interest in healthcare drug-dumping
Better science has allowed researchers to detect chemicals in water at tinier and tinier concentrations, and they’re finding scores of pharmaceuticals in groundwater, streams and effluent from wastewater treatment plants.
Scant evidence indicates these trace amounts of drugs—parts per billion and trillion—pose risks to people or the environment, and much of the stuff is believed to come from the secretions of animals and people who digest them. But federal and state regulators and lawmakers want to prevent unused pharmaceuticals from getting dumped or flushed into sewer systems or sent to landfills, from which chemicals can leach into groundwater. Hospitals, they’re looking at you. The operative federal law controlling the disposal of dangerous chemicals is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA (pronounced rick-ra), a 24-year-old statute that primarily targets industrial users. About 5% of pharmaceutical products are regulated under RCRA as hazardous materials. That leaves thousands of products on hospital formularies outside the reach of federal regulation, but the government doesn’t want the rest of it going to landfills or down the drain either, even if the national rules haven’t caught up yet.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not been particularly punitive in enforcing RCRA against hospitals. That may be changing as detection improves and public scrutiny increases. In 2008, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water after the Associated Press published a series of stories on the topic.
The subject also caught the interest of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who launched an investigation into the disposal practices of hospitals and nursing homes. The effort in January yielded settlement agreements with two critical-access hospitals and three nursing homes, whose drugs Cuomo alleged were making their way into the reservoirs and lakes that provide water to 9 million residents of New York City and surrounding communities (Jan. 18, p. 12).
The agreements invoke RCRA, yet prohibit the facilities from using drains and toilets and landfill-bound garbage to dispose of any pharmaceutical product, regardless of whether the feds call it hazardous. All of it must go to an incinerator, and the officially hazardous stuff must go to an incinerator permitted to handle it.
“In New York, it appears they used RCRA
PHOTO COURTESY OF RIVERKEEPER Water from the Ashokan Reservoir—a water source for New York City—allegedly was polluted by hospitals disposing of drugs.