Getting sick is a part of life. But when you are sick, your septic system is not on the top of your mind. But the medications you take into your system or dispose of will impact the aerobic balance within your system.
Anyone with a septic system knows that flushing things down your toilet or rinsing things down the sink has its limits. Coffee grounds, grease and baby wipes are never to be put into your septic system. But other things can cause adverse effects. Unwanted, unused and expired medications do not mix well with septic systems – and they need to be on the “do not flush” list inside your home.
Every septic system relies on a biological process because a septic tank is a living organism – at least the bacteria living in there are. There are trillions of bacteria present and working to decompose the solid waste in your tank.
Let’s take a look at the effect of medication on your septic system.
Pharmaceuticals vs. Over the Counter Medications
When we say medications, we do not necessarily include over-the-counter medicines. In the case of medications and septic systems, we focus on the ones that are prescribed to you by a medical professional, such as antibiotics, anti-depressants, cancer-related drugs or painkillers.
These medications can negatively impact your septic system. Unfortunately, it is not just the act of flushing medicine down the toilet that can be harmful to your septic system. Just using the bathroom while taking pharmaceuticals can be a problem.
Antibiotics, medicines for bacterial infections and chemotherapy drugs are especially harmful to the bacteria in your septic system. If the concentration of these drugs is too high inside the septic tank, they can kill the bacteria responsible for breaking down raw sewage. If the bacteria cannot break down the solid waste, it can build up and cause all of the problems listed above.
Here are some common antibiotic types that should NEVER be flushed into a septic tank:
How Do Medications Get into a Septic System?
The two main ways that medicines get into your septic system are through human waste and through intentional disposal.
- Human Waste
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.
This is typically not a problem when you have a properly sized septic tank and maintain it properly. But if you have more people using a tank that what it is rated to handle, and if some of those people are on high doses of daily medications, it could lead to an imbalanced septic tank.
- Intentional Disposal
Many people assume that it is safest to flush medications down the toilet than send it to the landfill when they are no longer needed. This method of intentional, mass disposal is likely to cause a septic system to go out of balance rapidly because the doses would be extremely high and concentrated. And in the cases of estates or vacant homes, there would be no water entering the system to help dilute the medications.
To keep your septic system healthy, make sure you properly dispose of your medications. There are always places within your community that offer to take in unused medication to be properly disposed of. If you cannot reach your community medication program, you can crush up your medicine and place it with some undesirable substance, usually kitty litter, in a sealable plastic baggie. This will help to prevent animals from thinking it is edible and trying to consume whatever is in your trash. Then you can simply throw out that plastic bag with your regular garbage.
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 are 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.
Generally, if you are on medication for less than ten days, you do not need to worry about your septic system. But, if someone in your household is on strong medication for several weeks or months, you will need to start thinking about an alternative method of waste management. Start by calling your septic service provider and notifying them of the situation. Often, they will be able to infuse extra bacteria into your system to keep it working properly. You may also need to change the amount of time that passes before your system is pumped. Traditionally, septic systems should be pumped once every three years. In cases where the bacteria are not able to quickly break-down the solid waste, the system will have to be pumped more frequently.
A septic tank has its own bacterial environment complete with all kinds of gases. These gases are the result of bacteria breaking down any organic material which flows into the septic tank. So, a septic tank is actually something of a living entity. Medications, like antibiotics, can kill off the healthy bacteria that you need in your septic system. Ultimately, this helpful bacteria aid in filtering the wastewater from your house for safe re-absorption back into the ground.
When wastewater leaves your house, it makes its way to the septic tank. Here is where the healthy bacteria live and thrive. In the tank, the solid waste settles on the bottom, and a layer of scum floats to the top of the wastewater. The water between these two sections is the effluent. This is where your beneficial bacteria live and thrive. The effluent then makes its way to the drain field where the bacteria continues to destroy and filter out dangerous pathogens. The soil then absorbs the effluent.
Many people like to use their toilets to get rid of unwanted items such as goldfish, organic waste, and even medication. There are many obvious problems with using your toilet as a disposal system. One, of course, is that objects like goldfish, tampons, etc., can clog up your septic tank fairly quickly, causing it to back up or overflow.
Keeping a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria means it can quickly and successfully break down the harmful waste that makes it way to your septic tank. Introducing pharmaceutical drugs into this environment can kill off the bacteria and cause your septic system to work improperly.
5 Tips for Preventing Problems with Medications and Septic Systems
1. Call Your Septic Company
Letting your trusted professional know that you may be putting unwanted medicines in your septic system can save you time and money. Luckily, the solution may be easier than you think. If you are trying to prevent problems, your septic company may suggest adding more bacteria to your system, pumping more often, and monitoring it on a regular basis. Taking preventative measures like this can save you money.
Or, perhaps your system may already be experiencing a problem with bacterial balance or groundwater contamination. This may mean taking on a more massive project by diluting or replacing your septic tank.
2. Minimize Use of Other Products Harmful to Bacteria
These items include cleaning solutions, antibacterial soaps, bleach, “flushable” wipes and more. You do not want to put extra stress on those beneficial bacteria.
- Chemicals, Oils, Paints
- Furniture polish
- Lye, NaOh, Sodium Hydroxide, caustic soda, drain cleaners, oven cleaners and similar cleaning products
- Oils such as used motor oil or unwanted cooking oil
- Paints of any kind, latex, oil, alkyd, acrylic, water-based
- Photo chemicals
- Thinners (such as paint thinner)
- De-Greasing Chemicals
- Dishwasher Detergents Containing Phosphates and Surfactants
- Disinfectants and Antimicrobials, including pine cleaners, bathroom and kitchen cleaners, liquid bleaches, sodium hypochlorite
- Drain Cleaners
- Hydrochloric acid HCL
- Lye, Caustic Soda, or Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH)
3. Dispose of Unwanted or Unused Medications Properly at Home
When it comes to pill bottles, the FDA suggests pouring the medication into a waste receptacle, like a Ziploc bag or plastic container. Then, cover them in something unpleasant. This can be coffee grounds, liquid soap, or cat litter to make the medication unappetizing for pets or kids. After you have made your unused medicines successfully unappealing, you can toss them in the trash.
4. Participate in National Drug Take-Back Day
Dispose of your medications—officially. You can find your local California disposal drop off on the FDA website.
5. Take Unwanted or Old Medications to Local Disposal Sites
Make sure to always remove personal information from prescription bottles and other medication containers when throwing them away. Remember that medications and septic systems do not mix. Flushing medicines negatively impact your smaller bacterial ecosystem as well as our larger one made of streams and rivers.
Call West Coast Sanitation Today!
Be mindful of what you put down your drain or in your toilet. Never dispose of leftover medications by flushing them down the toilet or sink. Contact your local pharmacy to see if they will dispose of extra medications for you. Also, limit the amount of bleach or disinfecting cleaners being used in your household. If you are already dealing with limited bacteria, you do not want to kill more.
At West Coast Sanitation, we understand the value and importance of a septic system inspection prior to buying or selling a home. Our professional inspectors strive to exceed your expectations and help you obtain the essential information you need to make an informed decision.
Call us at (951) 780-5922 right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions.