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Down-the-drain disposal of pharmaceuticals remains an overlooked and unrecognized source of environmental contamination that requires nontechnological “at-source” solutions. Monitoring of 31 pharmaceuticals over 7 days in five wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) serving five cities in South-West UK revealed down-the-drain codisposal of six pharmaceuticals to three WWTPs (carbamazepine and propranolol in city A, sildenafil in city B, and diltiazem, capecitabine, and sertraline in city D), with a one-off record codisposal of estimated 253 pills = 40 g of carbamazepine and estimated 96 pills = 4 g of propranolol in city A accounting for their 10- and 3-fold respective increases in wastewater daily loads. Direct disposal of pharmaceuticals was found to affect the efficiency of wastewater treatment with much higher pharmaceutical removal (decrease in daily load) during “down-the-drain disposal” days. This is due to lack of conjugated glucuronide metabolites that are cleaved during “consumption-only” days, with the release of a parent pharmaceutical counterbalancing its removal. Higher removal of pharmaceuticals during down-the-drain disposal days reduced pharmaceutical loads reaching receiving environment, albeit with significant levels remaining. The estimated daily loads in receiving water downstream from a discharge point accounted for 13.8 ± 3.4 and 2.1 ± 0.2 g day-1of carbamazepine and propranolol, respectively, during consumption-only days and peaked at 20.9 g day-1(carbamazepine) and 4.6 g day-1(propranolol) during down-the-drain disposal days. Actions are needed to reduce down-the-drain disposal of pharmaceuticals. Our recent work indicated that down-the-drain disposal of pharmaceuticals doubled since the last study in 2005, which may be due to the lack of information and messaging that informs people to dispose of unused medicines at pharmacies. Media campaigns that inform the public of how to safely dispose of medicines are key to improving rates of return and reducing pharmaceutical waste in the environment. The environment is a key motivator for returning unused medicines to a pharmacy and so messaging should highlight environmental risks associated with improper disposal.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11657-11666
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number17
Early online date23 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sept 2021


  • at-source wastewater treatment
  • disposal
  • pharmaceuticals
  • wastewater-based epidemiology
  • WBE

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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