Can your medications be destroying your septic tank and even endangering other people? Maybe. Certain drugs can wreak havoc on a septic tank, even if used for a short period of time, and many can end up in the groundwater from which you and others use. Here's what you should know.
A perfectly operating septic system is a beautiful thing.
When a septic tank is operating properly, waste water from the house enters the tank and the heavier solids sink and form a sludge. Fats and oils rise to the top and form a scum. The fairly clear water in the middle is called effluent. When everything is operating the way that it should, naturally occurring microorganisms called anaerobic bacteria break down the solids over time, allowing particles to drain with the effluent into the drain field. The soil in the drain field destroys the germs in the effluent over time.
If any one of those processes gets disrupted, the whole thing can clog up and eventually fail, leaving you with an expensive mess that has to be cleaned up and fixed.
Your medications can interrupt the natural processes in the tank.
Antibiotics, like penicillin, are very commonly prescribed for all sorts of illnesses. Sometimes they're even prescribed as a preventative measure, such as after surgery. Part of the reason that they help people is that they destroy bacteria—which makes them absolutely deadly to the anaerobic bacteria on which your septic tank relies.
If you or someone in your household is on antibiotics for even a short period of time, some of those bacteria-destroying medications are going to pass through your body and into the waste water coming from your house. If your septic system is healthy, the antibiotics might not do any long-term damage. However, if your septic system is older or is close to needing a cleaning, the antibiotics might eliminate too much of the bacteria in your tank and cause the solid waste to back up. A long-term course of antibiotics poses even more danger. So does flushing unused antibiotics down the drain.
Some medications can end up getting into your water supply.
Other medications, such as chemotherapy drugs, will also pass through your body and into the waste water. In the case of chemo meds, the drugs are still active when they enter the septic tank, which presents another danger: they can end up getting in the ground water after they make it from the tank to your drain field. This can lead to what's known as "second-hand chemo," where people are exposed to the drugs through what they think is water that's safe to bathe in, cook with, and drink.
Since you can't always avoid taking medications, practice caution when disposing of surplus drugs and waste material if you have a septic tank. Arrange for more frequent cleanings of your septic tank anytime you or someone in the household has been sick, in order to prevent damage to the tank and to keep the excess medication from getting into the groundwater nearby. Click for more info on keeping your septic system working.