To Flush or Not to Flush? Part I

This blog is the first in a three-part series introducing a framework for considering social circles, institutions and rational information to guide and enhance environmental education programs. We introduce the use of the “Human Capacity to Act” (HCA) framework – through the issue of Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) disposal.

Illustration 1

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu


Have you ever thought about what you should do with your unused medication? Although the drain might be an easy way to dispose of those medications, it is not the safest for water and other natural processes outside your home. A growing concern for people and the environment is the frequency of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) emerging as pollutants in our lakes, rivers and estuaries.



Figure 1

Figure 1. Studies have shown that the worldwide annual per capita consumption rate of pharmaceuticals is 15 grams, but it is actually three to ten times higher in developed countries (50-100 grams) (Zhang, Geißen & Gal, 2008). The average American today takes slightly more than 10 pills a day (Frey, 2013). With this increased use, comes the increased presence of these pharmaceuticals in the waterways (Morace, 2012).


People’s Actions Can Make a Difference

A large portion of PPCPs enter our natural waterways through wastewater due to improper disposal. As described in Adam Piore’s “Blissed out by Prozac”, most wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to treat and remove pharmaceuticals, and many of these substances pass through the treatment process into nearby rivers, lakes and streams consequently affecting drinking water and other environmental resources for humans and other organisms. Planning and building new wastewater treatment plants can take decades, and it is near impossible to anticipate emerging contaminants. For example the Brightwater Treatment Plant in Washington went into plan in 1999 and building was completed in 2012 (See Figure 2). New classes of PPCPs that were not planned for treatment emerged during the plants construction. The Brightwater project uses an advanced Membrane Bioreactor (MBR) technology during the secondary treatment to remove remaining debris and inorganic material. Still trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and pet care products can be left in water after the process (King County, 2013). It would not be economically feasible to include the technologies needed to remove all PPCPs.


Figure 2. Bridgewater Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, Seattle WA. Completed 2012.


With advances in medicine, wastewater treatment technology will often lag behind new drug chemistry- an unforeseen consequence. The increased levels of PPCPs in the environment are putting the ecosystem at risk, with problems ranging from degradation of water quality to negative impacts on aquatic organisms. Fish and other animals accumulate high concentrations of chemicals when exposed to them through water and these can have detrimental effects on the ecosystem function if it continues to excel. Providing education and means that enable people to reduce and properly dispose of unwanted or expired PPCPs can reduce the amount of and risks from them in our waterways.

“The ultimate aim of education is shaping human behavior” (Hungerford & Volk, 1990). Consumers and stewards of PPCPs are exposed to ever increasing forms and volumes of outreach and education to influence their actions. Learning how to better reach and inform consumers on proper PPCPs disposal is a new focus for scientifically based education activities. Our blog proposes a framework for considering the influence of social circles, institutions and rational information to guide more effective education programs that can help reduce the amount of unused PPCPs improperly disposed into the environment.

Next time on the WISE Blog: learn about the Human Capacity to Act framework that researchers use to direct their education measures at their audience.

Illustration 2

 Jack Ohman, The Oregonian

Credit to: Jennifer Lam, Samuel Chan, Tania Siemens, and Kayla-Maria Martin
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Danielle Goodrich

I am a senior studying Environmental Science and Zoology at OSU. I started at Oregon Sea Grant in summer 2013 as a PROMISE Intern and I was then offered to continue to help with the WISE program and other projects.
This entry was posted in Feature Stories and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to To Flush or Not to Flush? Part I

  1. farab says:

    Tanks alot for the article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *