Maine DEP Finds Pharmaceuticals in Landfill Leachate

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection last month received the results of tests conducted on leachate from three landfills in Maine – Augusta, Brunswick and Bath, and found that pharmaceutical drugs disposed of in household waste do end up in the liquid that drains or 'leaches' from a landfill.

“These test results back up what we believed to be true and that is that leftover prescription drugs that people throw away really don’t ever go away,” says Mark Hyland, director of the Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. “This is one reason we want pharmaceutical companies to do their part in taking back medication that people are no longer using and dispose of it properly.”

When prescription drugs are no longer needed they are typically: thrown in the trash, stashed in medicine cabinets – where you run the risk of accidental poisoning, flushed down the toilet – only to travel through wastewater treatment facilities essentially untreated, misused, or the cause of drug related crimes.

Leachate is typically sent from the landfill to a wastewater treatment plant where pharmaceuticals may pass through virtually untreated and go directly in the river. Wastewater treatment plants are designed to remove human waste not pharmaceutical drugs. Pharmaceuticals that end up in waterbodies can have negative impacts on fish and aquatic organisms.

DEP chose to test Augusta, Brunswick, and Bath because they are landfills that take in a lot of household waste but haven’t historically taken in sludge from wastewater treatment plants, which DEP felt could skew the test results. Types of drugs found in the leachate water were consistent in all three landfills and include antidepressants, antibiotics, steroids, as well as heart, asthma, and pain medications.

State Rep. Ann Perry of Calais is sponsoring a bill that would have pharmaceutical companies that distribute drugs in Maine be responsible for collecting and properly disposing of unwanted drugs. This is an effort that the DEP, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Public Safety, and the Attorney General support. The agencies feel the legislation would save money by reducing health care, public safety, and environmental costs.

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