Prescription (and non-prescription) drugs are a huge problem for the environment. Both the ones you take and the ones you don’t. The ones people take are the larger part of the problem, accounting for the majority what leeches into the environment. That includes the ones that people take indirectly, like antibiotics and hormones that are given to livestock and used on crops. Some of those go directly into the environment, some go through people first. Fixing the problem with the ones you don’t take is by the far the easiest of the two.
It used to be that when people ended up with left over prescription medication the recommendation for disposing of them was to flush them down the toilet or wrap them up and toss them in the garbage. It turns out that that isn’t such good advice after all. Drugs are being found all through the environment, and many of them are known to have negative effects. On May 5, 2007 the Seattle Times published The environmental side effects of old medicine.
Back in 2004 a coalition of local and State governments, and non-profit groups formed the Unwanted Medicine Return Program to try to deal with the issue. They now have pages about medicines in our water supplies and lots of Press links with more information.
And they’ve actually done something about it. In cooperation with Group Health and Bartell Drugstores they’ve started a pilot project to collect unused medications and dispose of them properly. According to estimates from Pharmaceuticals from Households: A Return Mechanism (PH:ARM) Executive Summary (PDF File)
A state wide collection program in Washington may reach 600,000 lbs annually
For more reading the EPA has an article about how drugs get into the environment and the harm that causes. And Govlink.org has a PDF file available titled Disposal of Medications from Residential Consumers, Issues, barriers, and opportunities.