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Pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment

A pharmaceutical or personal care product is any product used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons, used by veterinarians to treat pets, or used by farmers to enhance the growth or health of livestock. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications, veterinary medications, fragrances and cosmetics.

People in Wisconsin use and discard large quantities of over-the-counter medications, prescriptions and personal care products every year. Flushing these products down the drain or throwing them in the trash may contaminate our lakes and rivers and affect fish and wildlife. There is growing evidence that these products may be affecting the environment in unintended ways, and unused medications in homes may be misused or abused.

Find out what to do with your unused medications by visiting the following pages:

Environmental Concerns

Studies have shown that pharmaceuticals and personal care products are present in the environment. They have been detected in surface waters and groundwater. They can enter lakes and rivers directly through release from bathing/swimming and indirectly through wastewater and stormwater runoff. They can reach groundwater by seeping from septic systems or leaching from landfills.

Researchers are investigating how some of these products may interact with our environment. They have found that pharmaceuticals and personal care products can:

  • lead to the formation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria;
  • act like hormones or endocrine disruptors, which alter the normal functions of wildlife, including reproduction, development and growth; and
  • release harmful components, such as toxic metals.

More information

Human Concerns

Medications are regularly involved in accidental poisonings, dosing errors, drug abuse and drug abuse-related crime. Inappropriate donations of pharmaceuticals may create disposal issues and other environmental problems for the recipients, particularly if the drugs are exported to other countries.

For information about how prescription drug abuse affects Wisconsin and what can be done about it, see the State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse's 2012 report Reducing Wisconsin's Prescription Drug Abuse: A Call to Action [PDF exit DNR].

Searching for Solutions

This is a complex issue and solutions are evolving. Challenges exist in collecting drugs, paying for disposal, treating wastewater, reducing waste and determining effects on wildlife and water, to name just a few. As groups across the country work together to solve these complex problems, creative solutions are evolving.

To combat the growing problems of prescription drug abuse and environmental pollution, communities throughout Wisconsin have created and implemented voluntary household drug take-back programs. Response to these programs has been extremely positive, with strong support from citizens, law enforcement, pharmacists, local governments and healthcare professionals.

Despite Wisconsin's best efforts, current collection options are insufficient and unsustainable. They have high per capita operation costs, which fall primarily on local governments already challenged by tight budgets. To assist local governments, the Wisconsin Dept. of Justice has volunteered to coordinate the disposal of drugs collected by law enforcement agencies. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration also coordinates disposal for law enforcement in Wisconsin and other states. Several municipalities in other states have required the pharmaceutical industry to fund collection programs.

Nationally, public concerns about the potential effects of pharmaceuticals and personal care products are prompting both voluntary and regulatory action. Following reports of finding microbeads in the Great Lakes, several major companies agreed to stop using them in their personal care products. Although Wisconsin passed legislation addressing microbeads in July 2015, the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 preempts any state or local microbead bills. The federal ban was adopted in December 2015 and amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products. The law banned manufacturing of microbeads beginning in 2017 and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing microbeads in 2019.

A similar example exists in the food industry. Major restaurants, food chains and businesses are taking steps to serve meats that are free of antibiotics. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a Veterinary Feed Directive that changes how antibiotics can be legally used in feed or water for food-producing animals.

DNR Study on Household Pharmaceutical Waste

In 2012, the DNR published an in-depth assessment of the full costs, benefits, opportunities and challenges to expanding household take-back programs in Wisconsin. The study established a baseline collection rate against which future programs can be measured and compared costs of the current take-back program with those in Canada and Europe.

Key Findings

  • In Wisconsin, it is estimated that nearly 120 million prescriptions for pharmaceuticals are sold each year, and roughly one-third of all doses prescribed go unused.
  • Only 2% of the total amount of unused household pharmaceuticals was collected for safe disposal in 2011, despite significant voluntary collection efforts around the state.
  • The estimated cost of Wisconsin take-back programs ranges from $8.05 to $10.07 per pound. By comparison, producer-managed programs in Canada and France average $3.50 per pound and $0.23 per pound, respectively.
  • Barriers to effective collection programs include high costs, lack of sustainable funding, consumer inconvenience, low public awareness and inadequate program promotion. Limited in-state capacity for pharmaceutical destruction also contributes to high program costs.

Results from the study have been used to identify acceptable short-term solutions and to seek convenient and sustainable longer-term solutions to the problems posed by unwanted pharmaceuticals.


The DNR collaborates on an ongoing basis with other stakeholders to identify and evaluate sustainable, environmentally responsible ways to manage pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

  • The DNR collaborates with the Wisconsin Department of Justice on a variety of law enforcement-related pharmaceuticals topics, including 2013 Wisconsin Act 198, a drug disposal law which took effect in July 2015 and DOJ's Drug Take Back program to dispose of household pharmaceuticals collected by law enforcement agencies.
  • The DNR co-chairs the Wisconsin Pharmaceutical Waste Working Group, a diverse group of stakeholders who aim to reduce the effects of pharmaceutical waste on Wisconsin's environment and communities. As a result of networking and shared knowledge, group members have provided valuable input to policymakers, set up drug collection programs and developed educational materials.
  • The DNR assisted the University of Wisconsin-Extension in developing resources for healthcare facilities wishing to reduce pharmaceutical waste.
  • The DNR was a coordinating partner in a U.S. EPA-funded Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant aimed at keeping pharmaceutical compounds out of the Great Lakes. From 2010 to 2013, the partners ran a pilot mail-back program, hosted regional meetings, developed resources for managing and reducing pharmaceutical waste from households and businesses and assembled publications on the subject.