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Abstract

In the United States, we do not currently test for pharmaceutical contaminants in our water. This is extremely problematic because when pharmaceuticals are leached into the environment, the active chemical components can cause serious harm to wildlife. Furthermore, pharmaceuticals can contaminate drinking water posing a health risk to human health. Yet, one of the simplest actions to prevent pharmaceutical contamination—proper pharmaceutical disposal—is a neglected aspect of the American waste system. There are no federal disposal programs or regulations on how consumers have to dispose of their pharmaceuticals. As a result, pharmaceutical contamination continues to occur as many individuals dispose of their pharmaceuticals by flushing them down the drain or throwing them away in the trash. The lack of widespread disposal programs across the country led me to question why many institutions have not invested in creating such programs, especially institutions that have the resources to do so. This was the inspiration for my case study at the University of Chicago. In my research, I highlight the implementation challenges to establishing a safe pharmaceutical disposal program at the University of Chicago and how this reflects more broadly on how pharmaceutical disposal is scarcely utilized in the United States. My research builds from a student survey where I collected about 200 student responses, in addition to interviews with external institutions with successful safe pharmaceutical disposal programs and extensive literature on water contamination policies and hazardous waste regulations in the United States. Overall, I find there are both federal barriers and informal barriers that prevent widespread use of pharmaceutical disposal programs. The formal barriers I found include insufficient resources, limitations in micro-pollution policies, and fragmented enforcement. On the University of Chicago campus, the informal barriers I discovered include lack of knowledge regarding safe pharmaceutical disposal and inadequate awareness about disposal options. I ultimately recommend an implementation protocol for the University of Chicago to establish a safe pharmaceutical disposal program through three essential steps: purchase a safe pharmaceutical disposal bin, collaborate with multiple departments to educate and spread information about the program and finally sustain the program through community involvement.

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