Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2017VT88B

Pharm-free surface waters: Identifying barriers and motivators that influence Vermonters' participation in pharmaceutical take-back programs

Institute: Vermont
Year Established: 2017 Start Date: 2017-03-01 End Date: 2018-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $5,376 Total Non-Federal Funds: $4,406

Principal Investigators: Christine Vatovec, Alexandra Millar

Abstract: Pharmaceuticals are ubiquitously disposed of or discharged into the environment on a continual basis, posing a risk for Vermont’s surface, ground, and drinking water. A previous study led by the current PI and her partners at the USGS detected 54 pharmaceutical compounds in wastewater entering Lake Champlain. Although researchers are just beginning to characterize the environmental occurrence of pharmaceuticals in Vermont, aquatic pharmaceutical contamination poses a risk to environmental and human health. A growing body of literature reports associations between these contaminants and reproductive effects in fish, bivalves, and zooplankton. Drugs including anti-convulsants, antihistamines, antibiotics, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been detected in the drinking water of 41 million Americans in 24 major metropolitan areas. Preliminary laboratory evidence suggests that prescribed synthetic chemicals and hormones may contribute to human tumor formation and that susceptibility to cancer may result from developmental exposures. Consumer behavior, including disposal of unwanted household medications via municipal trash or household drains, is a principal source of drinking and surface water pharmaceutical contamination. The environmentally-preferred disposal method is through collection (“take-back”) programs where drugs are collected and incinerated. These initiatives rely on voluntary participation and are critical for reducing the risk of aquatic pharmaceutical contamination. While residents of Burlington, VT, have access to several drug collection initiatives, research indicates a majority of people may be storing leftover medications or disposing them via the trash. This Master’s-level research project seeks to assess attitudes and behavior related to aquatic pharmaceutical pollution in order to develop evidence-based communication tools to increase participation in pharmaceutical take-back programs. This research addresses an urgent need to encourage proper drug disposal to decrease quantities of stored and improperly disposed medications and reduce the risk of pharmaceutical contamination in Vermont’s surface waters. Objectives & Methods: Focusing on Vermont, our objectives are to: 1) assess knowledge of and attitudes towards aquatic pharmaceutical contamination, 2) identify current disposal behaviors, 3) test pilot messaging promoting participation in drug collection programs, and 4) make strategic communication recommendations to Vermont agencies and nonprofits promoting safe drug collection. To accomplish our objectives, we will conduct semi-structured cognitive interviews with UVM students that involve asking students a series of questions before, during, and after they look at various posters that promote collection programs as a safe drug waste disposal option. Interviews and the survey tool will be planned and implemented using the Tailored Design Method, shown to significantly increase participant response rates. Analysis & Results: Audio-recorded interview data will be coded and analyzed using inductive, directed content analysis; data will be entered into a digital matrix to facilitate data organization and retrieval for thematic and pattern identification. A mixed model ANOVA will be conducted to derive preliminary conclusions from the survey data. Results from this interdisciplinary research will include an assessment of current attitudes and behaviors, as well as, if and how different pilot messaging influences participants’ perceptions of aquatic pharmaceutical contamination and their willingness to participate in a drug collection program. This project will inform communication and community outreach strategies, including a proposed county-wide drug collection initiative, encouraging the proper disposal of household drugs through take-back initiatives in Vermont.