Creating a Drug Crisis

How popular drug collection programs may serve the cause of environmental extremism.

More and more, communities throughout the United States are implementing drug collection programs to dispose of their unused prescriptions drugs. There are good reasons for doing so, like keeping prescription drugs out of the hands of children. But these programs have also been trumpeted as a boon for the environment, and as always when the environmentalist movement is involved, there is a more ominous agenda in play.

A rather obscure theory, dear to the hearts of many environmental groups, holds that over- the-counter drugs, prescription drugs and pesticides are wreaking havoc on human health and the environment because they act as “endocrine disruptors.” Understanding the theory will force us to delve into the science a bit.

Humans and animals depend of endocrine systems for a variety of biological functions. These systems utilize communications between hormones to regulate, among other things, reproductive and digestive processes. But what if something interferes with that communication system? To put a point on it, what if man-made chemicals sabotage endocrine systems? The results could be disastrous.

Disrupting endocrine systems could – emphasis on “could” – reduce reproductive rates, result in more birth deformities and cause other biological problems. The degree to which a particular chemical could cause such damage depends on a couple of things: the nature of the chemical and the amount of the chemical ingested. The adage “the dose makes the poison” applies. The problem here, which is what makes potential regulation of endocrine disruptors so ominous, is that it is claimed that some chemicals have the ability to disrupt endocrine systems at extremely low doses, concentrations so minute that it is necessary to push the envelope of science to even find these chemicals, much less remove them. It has been claimed that, for some chemicals, concentrations as low as parts per trillion, even parts per quadrillion, can damage endocrine systems.

Such claims are nothing more than nonsense of the sort that environmental groups routinely spout in order to create non-existent crises that their supporters are urged to address. Not coincidentally, these manufactured crises are used by environmental groups to drum up contributions in order to battle evil corporations bent on destroying the planet. In 1999 scientists on the National Research Council found that there is no good evidence to suggest that man-made chemicals are damaging endocrine systems in either humans or wildlife. Nonetheless, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to press on with further research into the issue, a process that continues to this day.

EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) was created in 1996 with the goal of isolating and eventually regulating those chemicals that the Agency determines pose a threat to endocrine systems. In 2007, EPA released a list of the first seventy three “Tier I” chemicals that it believes pose the most immediate threat. The Agency is now studying this list in greater depth. What’s on the list? Mostly pesticides, including some widely used chemicals like Malathion that environmental groups have had in their crosshairs for years, but some very important, widely used industrial chemicals, as well. Acetone, methyl ethyl ketone and toluene, used in a wide variety of industrial applications, make the cut, as do certain phthalates, which are used in the production of some plastics.

As I have noted before, environmental groups will get you any way they can. If they can’t ban coal combustion outright, then they’ll try to pile costs onto coal-fired power by imposing expensive rules that restrict the reuse of coal ash. If they can’t get rid of phthalates one way, then creating new, incredibly low standards for phthalate residue in the environment is a neat way to solve the supposed problem.

We’ve seen this environmental two-step before. Step one: create a crisis whose causes are too complex for the layman to understand and claim that, if not addressed rapidly, it will cause horrific damage. Step two: solve the “crisis” by piling expensive new restrictions on industrial activity in America. That’s the endgame whenever these seemingly innocuous research programs swing into gear. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, jumped on the endocrine disruptor bandwagon early, warning supporters that they, their children and wildlife of all sorts were at risk.

This brings us back to increasingly popular drug collection programs. Is there legitimate concern about teen-agers pilfering the Vicodin left over after dad has his knee surgery? Maybe. But there’s more here than meets the eye. In the world of endocrine disruptor theory, many drugs are said to be especially dangerous threats. A lot of people flush unused and expired drugs down their toilets, which eventually end up in water supplies, since treatment plants are not equipped to remove the tiny amount of these drugs in waste water streams. Thus, for environmentalists, drug collection programs are an important way to protect mother earth. However, there is a flaw in this grand design: it won’t work. There is no way that the government will convince enough people to stop flushing drugs down their toilet such that the concentrations of these drugs is, for all purposes, undetectable in water supplies.

So, following the path of the inevitable environmental regulatory logic to follow, when the EPA determines that the “problem” can’t be solved by voluntary means, the agency will require waste water plants to upgrade their treatment systems in order to remove a tiny bit of nothing from incoming waste streams. This in turn will cost money, probably a great deal of money, and that cost will be reflected in your water bill because that’s how you pay for operation of the treatment plant. Water being more expensive, people will cut down on their water use, which, from the environmentalist point of view, will be a most happy result indeed.

No doubt that is the ultimate aim of some of the environmental groups that are so concerned about the supposed nasty effects of endocrine disruptors. There is surely sincere, if unsubstantiated, concern mixed in there as well among certain groups, but subtle indeed are the ways of the green revolution. If the “endocrine disruptor crisis” can eventually result in sabotaging pesticide use, making key industrial chemicals more expensive and increasing the cost of using water, then it’s a green crusade made in heaven. The inevitable regulations to follow are still a long way off, but there’s no doubt that they’re coming. It’s just a matter of time.

Rich Trzupek is a chemist and Principal Consultant at Mostardi Platt Environmental, an environmental consulting firm based in Oak Brook, Illinois. He specializes in air quality issues and is the author of McGraw-Hill’s Air Quality Permitting and Compliance Manual. Rich is a confirmed skeptic with regard to the theory that human activity has caused global warming. He is also a regular contributor at