Environmental footprint of pharmaceuticals: The significance of factors beyond direct excretion to sewers

Authors

  • Christian G. Daughton,

    Corresponding author
    1. Environmental Sciences Division, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 944 East Harmon Avenue, Las Vegas, Nevada 89119
    • Environmental Sciences Division, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 944 East Harmon Avenue, Las Vegas, Nevada 89119
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  • Ilene S. Ruhoy

    1. College of Osteopathic Medicine, Touro University Nevada, Henderson, Nevada 89014, USA
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  • Published on the Web 4/21/2009.

Abstract

The combined excretion of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) via urine and feces is considered the primary route by which APIs from human pharmaceuticals enter the environment. Disposal of unwanted, leftover medications by flushing into sewers has been considered a secondary route—one that does not contribute substantially to overall environmental loadings. The present study presents the first comprehensive examination of secondary routes of API release to the environment and for direct but unintentional human exposure. These include bathing, washing, and laundering, all of which release APIs remaining on the skin from the use of high-content dermal applications or from excretion to the skin via sweating, and disposal of unused and partially used high-content devices. Also discussed are the health hazards associated with: partially used devices, medication disposal practices of consumers, and interpersonal dermal transfer of API residues. Understanding these secondary routes is important from the perspective of pollution prevention, because actions can be designed more easily for reducing the environmental impact of APIs compared with the route of direct excretion (via urine and feces), for reducing the incidence of unintentional and purposeful poisonings of humans and pets, and for improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of health care. Overall, unintentional exposure to APIs for humans via these routes is possibly more important than exposure to trace residues recycled from the environment in drinking water or foods.

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