The following article is the first part of a comprehensive two-part series exploring the public health and environmental impact of household pharmaceutical waste in the US.
Prescription and non-prescription pharmaceutical drugs are critical to maintaining the health and improving the quality of life for millions of Americans. In recent years, household pharmaceuticals have become ubiquitous in the US.
Unfortunately, not all pharmaceuticals dispensed to or purchased by people are consumed or used. Frequently these unused pharmaceuticals are flushed down the toilet, poured down the drain or simply thrown in the trash. Improper disposal leads to a variety of detrimental effects to public and environmental health.
Just how pervasive is this problem? It has been estimated that hospitals and long-term care (LTC) facilities in the US waste at least 125 million pounds of pharmaceuticals annually – a staggering figure. As the pervasiveness of household pharmaceuticals continues to climb, the health care industry must find environmentally friendly and cost effective methods for reducing pharmaceutical waste and handling it once it has been generated.
Pharmaceutical Use in the US
In the US, the use of prescription drugs, as measured by the number of prescriptions purchased and the annual rate of growth in prescription drug spending, increased considerably over the last 15 years. From 1993 to 2003, the number of prescriptions purchased increased 70 percent (from 2 billion to 3.4 billion). Between 1995 and 2004, the annual rate of growth in prescription drug spending was, on average, 13.4 percent per year. In 2005, approximately 3.6 billion prescriptions were purchased in the US, and in 2006, prescription drug spending increased 8.5 percent from the prior year to reach $216.7 billion.
The use of non-prescription drugs has also increased appreciably over time. However, accurate estimates of non-prescription drug use are comparatively limited because many studies that approximate the use of pharmaceuticals either exclude non-prescription drugs or categorize over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and dietary supplements into one category.