We often urge septic system owners to keep a watchful eye on the items being flushed into their systems, but something that needs more attention is how certain medications can affect your system as well. In 1999, the EPA published an article that brought significant attention to the effect of pharmaceuticals being flushed down the toilet. Prior to that, the standard practice for safely disposing of unused prescription drugs was to flush them down the toilet. Since then, new standards for disposing of this medication have been established by the FDA, including medicine take-back programs, mixing them into kitty litter or coffee grounds and disposing them in the trash, and, in some very specific cases, safely flushing them down the toilet. However, recognizing which medicines are safe to flush into your septic system is only one part of the puzzle. We also need to be paying attention to the effect of the medication that reaches our septic system through human waste.
Medication’s “Natural” Path into Your Septic System
Since the epiphany surrounding the pitfalls of flushing certain medication down our toilets, the most common way for medications to enter our septic systems is through human waste. When we take any drug, a portion of the original parent drug does not get broken down by our bodies and is excreted in our waste. It is difficult to know precisely how much of the original drug remains, because it varies from person to person, but estimates indicate only about 90% of the drug is metabolized by our bodies. The undigested portion is removed from our bodies through natural elimination – through our waste or as sweat – which means we are either flushing or washing medication into our septic system anytime we take a prescription drug.
Medication’s Impact on Your Septic System
Septic systems, unlike sewage treatment plants, operate on a microscale. Because of this, the impact of these medications will be much greater and needs to be something all septic system owners are mindful of. As with the chemicals we flush into our septic systems, certain medications can have a devastating effect on your septic, if taken for an extended period of time. Antibiotics work within our bodies to kill off bad bacteria that is making us sick. Taken for a standard amount of time, usually less than two weeks, these undigested antibiotics will not have a significant impact on your septic’s ecosystem. However, over the long haul, antibiotics in your waste will kill of the bacteria in your septic system, making it far less efficient at breaking down the solids in the tank. Chemotherapy drugs have a similar effect on your septic system.
What You Should Do about Medication in Your Septic System
These life-saving drugs are miracles of modern medicine, and we do not recommend foregoing their use to prevent complications for your septic system. However, there are some things you can do to counteract the effect of these medications on your septic system. If somebody in your home is expected to be prescribed these medications on a short-term basis (shorter than three months), your septic system should be able to recover on its own after the treatment has been completed. Cleaning the tank after they have finished taking the medication will help your septic system recover more quickly. If the drugs are to be taken longer than three months, there are some things you can do to protect your system. First, minimize the use of other products that are designed to kill bacteria – antibacterial soap, bleach, antibacterial household cleaners, etc. – as they will further stress the ecosystem in your septic. Second, after the treatment has begun, have your system evaluated to determine how the medication is effecting the septic ecosystem and whether it is functioning normally. You will want to continue more frequent periodic service calls while the medication is being taken, and then again once the treatment is complete to have the system pumped.
Have you or a member of your family been prescribed medication that may be affecting your septic system? Contact us today to schedule a service call!