Pharmaceuticals improperly disposed of end up in the water we use to irrigate farmland, even after being treated at wastewater treatment plants.

Another externality that doesn’t receive much attention is the disposal of petrochemically-derived pharmaceuticals. Studies show that drugs leach from landfills and are often flushed down toilets, allowing the chemicals to infiltrate drinking and irrigation water. Results from wildlife studies have shown that these endocrine disrupters can have significant impacts on sex and other reproductive characteristics. Are these externalities the reason why human sperm count has been dropping steadily for the last half century?

The pharmaceutical industry currently has no legal requirement to take back drugs when they pass their expiration dates or are no longer useful for other reasons. As a result, one of two things happens: the drugs are improperly disposed of, affecting human health in a wide variety of ways, or the taxpayer pays for proper disposal of the drugs. In the former case, some of the most common effects result from hormone mimicking compounds that can affect our sexuality, reproduction, and general health. The endocrine disruption caused by hormone mimics was covered in great detail by scientists in the book Our Stolen Future. The end product in many cases of this type of pollution was wildlife populations that had lost the ability to reproduce, either because penises were greatly shrunken in male offspring (Florida alligators), or homosexual behavior was witnessed and documented for the first time ever in bird populations that mate for life with one partner (Great Lakes water birds).

Either way, the pharmaceutical companies get away with an externalized cost that helps them keep their margins healthy. The new measure, if passed, would require pharmaceutical companies to pay for disposal of their unused medications. This is a terrifying concept for pharmaceutical companies, and their knee jerk response has been predictable.“We are asking for the pharmaceutical industry to wise up and be a good corporate partner, to be a good neighbor,” said Democratic San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. Drug companies responded that the grand majority of drugs in the water supply are actually from human secretions, not from drugs being flushed down the toilet or thrown in the trash.

Studies cited by Marjaneh Zarrehparvar, manager of the department’s hazardous waste program, show that landfills leach everything from painkillers to steroids to antidepressants. In all likelihood, the rate of infection of drinking water would be much higher when those pharmaceuticals are flushed down a toilet or poured into a sink and thereby sent directly to wastewater treatment plants.

End-of-life disposal is a key externality that companies often don’t have to pay for. In this case, the cost is borne by taxpayers when pharmaceutical take-back programs are put in place by municipalities. And, of course, the cost is borne by people exposed to high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals that have dissolved from pharmaceutical products. Drug companies counter that the extra regulation would just mean higher prices passed on to the customer.

How much would it actually cost? “All we’re asking for,” said Mirkarimi, “is a bucket with a lid that is regulated so that people can have a controlled environment to bring back their medications to dispose of prudently–that’s it.”

Response by conservative San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd was typical of shortsighted policymakers everywhere who would like to keep externalities off the balance sheet of polluting industries. Elsbernd called SF’s program another example of “the long arm of San Francisco” trying to solve a national problem, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It is my firm belief that policies like this, which help make large polluters accountable, are exactly why the Republican party can count on vast contributions from oil, gas, coal, pharmaceutical, and other industries that continue to rely on lax regulations that help them keep costs off their balance sheet–and make them the burden of the taxpayer, the general public, the individual…

Why not a creative solution? That bucket Mirkarimi is asking for? Why not put a Viagra ad on it and post it up for safe disposal at every pharmacy? Call it a marketing expense, and all of a sudden, you’ll watch pharmaceutical companies line up to internalize those external costs and become good corporate citizens. Taxpayers stop paying for what should rightfully be the pharmaceutical companies’ costs, and people get lower exposure to chemicals in their food and drinking water.


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About The Author

Scott Cooney

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on

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