6 Things You Should Never Pour Down the Drain

When you’re trying to get rid of an unwanted item quickly (say some leftover paint or expired medication), your first reaction might be to wash it down the sink. After all, drains act as magic portals to rinse away all our messes to some watery subterranean netherworld, never to be seen again. Or so we like to think.

However, you’ll be surprised how much of the things we put down the drain end up in rivers, streams, groundwater, and eventually, our drinking water. These waste materials can also cause mayhem in household pipes, septic systems, and municipal sewer plants and create toxic environmental issues for marine animals.

While pouring that quarter bottle of hairspray or sunscreen down the bathroom sink might not seem like a big deal, consider the millions of people also pouring their respective leftover liquids down the drain, and you’ll start to see a problem.

So, for the sake of longer-lasting plumbing, healthier water habitats, and cleaner and safer drinking water, this article highlights several things you should avoid pouring down your drains and what you can do to minimize your contribution to the growing water pollution problem.

What Happens to the “Stuff” That Goes Down the Drain?

Okay, be honest. You have no idea where the stuff that goes down the drain goes. Some people believe it vanishes forever, but this isn’t always the case – if any at all. Here’s what happens when discarded materials go down the drain.

Homes with a septic system.

If you have a septic system, wastewater from your house goes into a septic tank, a large water-tight container buried underground in the yard. Its job is to hold the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle down to the bottom and form sludge. At the same time, the oil and grease in the water float to the top as scum.

As new water enters the tank, it displaces the existing water, causing some of it to flow into a drain field. The drain field is a shallow, covered excavation made in unsaturated soil. Pretreated wastewater is discharged through piping onto porous surfaces that allow wastewater to filter through the ground. The soil accepts, treats, and disperses wastewater as it percolates through the ground, ultimately discharging to groundwater.

Homeowners with well systems are likely exposed to contaminants that enter groundwater from waste materials. That’s because well systems collect water from underground aquifers containing groundwater. On top of that, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t regulate private wells. So, unless you have a mechanism that can filter out contaminants in drinking water, they can easily leach into your home water supply and wreak havoc on your health and household.

Homes without a septic system.

Homes without a septic system typically have pipes connected to sewer mains that run underneath the street and sidewalks. Sewage from these homes travels through larger pipes from the municipal sewage system to a sewage treatment plant.

Once the wastewater reaches the treatment plant, the facility treats the water to reduce or remove solid waste and pollutants before releasing it back into local waterways to be recycled for different purposes, such as supplying drinking water.

However, many chemicals in the wastewater persist through the wastewater treatment process and end up cropping up in the water flowing from our pipes into our drinking glass and, ultimately, our bodies.

6 Things You Shouldn’t Pour Down the Drain & How to Dispose of Them Safely

To help reduce the stress on sewage and wastewater treatment systems and minimize the risk of contamination in your drinking water, here’s a list of things that have no business being in the drain and sewer system:

1. Paint

Whether you’ve just added the finishing touches on an artwork or finally finished painting your bedroom, safely disposing of your leftover paint is crucial. Of course, you’ll want to avoid pouring the extra paint down the drain and rinsing the brushes, rollers, and trays in the sink. That’s because paint can leach toxic chemicals into the water and clog your pipes when it dries.

Latex and oil paints usually contain lead and cadmium, both dangerous metals. These and other elements commonly found in paint can harm aquatic life once they enter the environment. Furthermore, while water treatment facilities eliminate many contaminants from wastewater before releasing it into the environment, they may not be able to remove them all, possibly including those toxic ingredients in paint. That means they may end up contaminating local drinking water.

How to Dispose of Paint Safely

  • Never rinse painting equipment where the water can run into the storm drain. Instead, rinse the paint brushes and other tools in a bucket and let the paint residue settle in the old rinse water before pouring the water down the drain.
  • Allow leftover paint at the bottom of the bucket to dry and harden before scraping or peeling it off and throwing it in the trash.
  • If the paint is usable and less than ten years old, donate it to a friend or a local community group, such as a community center, school, shelter, or theater, that can use it up.
  • If it is unusable or older than ten years, save the paint for a household hazardous waste collection or drop it off at designated hazardous waste depots.

2. Pharmaceuticals

One of the most common ways pharmaceuticals (old or unwanted prescription or over-the-counter medication) enter our homes and waterways is by flushing them down the sink or toilet. Many water treatment plants cannot filter out most pharmaceuticals. That means trace amounts of these drugs may end up in drinking water. Perhaps that’s why studies have found everything from ibuprofen and antidepressants to birth control hormones in our natural waterways.

Because medication drugs are likely to be present in tiny amounts in the water supply, there isn’t any immediate threat to human health (or so it seems). Generally, these compounds can bio-accumulate and cause several implications from repeated exposure.

Once ingested, some of these drugs could interact with certain medications people are already taking intentionally. This could reduce the effectiveness of the prescribed drug or disrupt how our bodies function, which could be unsafe for pregnant women, the elderly, and young children. Children are especially at risk since their bodies cannot filter out toxins as effectively as adults.

How to Dispose of Pharmaceuticals Safely

  • Rather than flushing expired or unwanted medicine down the toilet, drop it off with a medication take-back program if there’s one nearby.
  • You can also mix the medication with something unpalatable, like coffee grounds sealed in a plastic bag, and place it in the trash.

3. Cleaning Products

Most cleaning products contain chemicals, such as antibacterial agents, phosphates, and many other substances that some water treatment plants cannot remove from water. What’s more, these chemicals contain hazardous ingredients that can be a threat to human health and may disrupt water ecosystems when improperly disposed of.

For example, pouring bleach down drains recently exposed to cleaning products that contain ammonia can cause dangerous chloramine gas to form. The fumes from this gas can irritate the eyes and nose and sometimes lead to more severe health issues. Also, chlorine can react with organic matter to form new toxic chemicals.

While you should avoid pouring most cleaning products down the drain, some are safe to do so because they are more eco-friendly and will not cause the damage that others will.

How to Dispose of Cleaning Products Safely

  • Before disposing of a cleaner down the drain, check the back of the bottle to ensure it is all-natural and flushable.
  • Make homemade cleaners from environmentally safe ingredients such as vinegar and baking soda.

4. Motor Vehicle Fluids

Never pour motor oil or other automotive fluids (including anti-freeze, gasoline, and solvents) down a drain in your house or garage. Yes, it’s cool to change the oil in your car and maintain your vehicle at home, but properly disposing of the used chemicals is critical.

Used motor oil can contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and cadmium that can pollute drinking water and endanger our health if consumed. What’s more, it only takes one quart of oil poured down a storm drain to contaminate one million gallons of water. Besides, the EPA discovered that used oil that hasn’t been disposed of properly could contaminate the equivalent of one year’s water supply for 50 people.

A single pint of oil can produce a slick of approximately one acre of water. When oil enters a body of water, a film develops on the surface that blocks out the sunlight that plants and other organisms need to live.

Furthermore, antifreeze and transmission fluids contain ethylene glycol, which maintains the temperatures needed for a vehicle to operate as it should. Water treatment facilities may not remove this element consistently, and anyone who ingests it could experience kidney failure, central nervous system complications, and cardiac arrest.

How to Dispose of Motor Vehicle Fluids Safely

  • Instead of dumping motor oils and other automotive fluids in your sink, contact your local recycling or waste center to find out if they have an oil bank where you can safely (and legally) dispose of it. (Note: Unlike cooking oil, you cannot dispose of motor oil in the trash. Many cities will issue stiff fines for dumping toxic waste into landfills.)

5. Grease, Fats, and Oils

When grease, fats, and oils are put down the sink, they cool, harden, and stick to the inside of sewer pipes. Now, imagine what happens when grease from other households combine. It can form a mass in the sewer system, blocking water from passing through and creating a significant sewage blockage. Grease, fat, and oil buildups caused about 47 percent of the up to 36,000 sewer overflows that occur annually in the United States.

So, the next time you cook bacon, think twice before pouring the grease down the sink.

How to Dispose of Grease, Fats, and Oils Safely

  • Check your city’s municipal utility company to see if they have a cooking oil collection program.
  • If not, the best recommendation is to collect the used oil in a leak proof jar, seal it, and throw it away in the trash.

6. Flammables

It might seem logical not to pour flammables down the drain, but many homeowners are guilty of this practice. Sadly, they don’t realize these products’ potential dangers to water ecosystems and drinking water.

Flammables include paint thinners, gasoline, nail polish removers, kerosene, etc. These liquids can be corrosive to your pipes and may even cause an explosion if they react with other elements in the drain. Even if no reaction occurs, they can ignite if they become too warm and reach their combustion points.

How to Dispose of Flammables Safely

  • Contact your local hazardous waste collection agency for advice on how to dispose of flammables.

Don’t Wastewater Treatment Plants Remove “Everything”?

As we mentioned a couple of times earlier, wastewater treatment plants don’t always remove all the unwanted materials from the incoming wastewater. They do a fantastic job of removing larger solids, biological/bacterial contaminants, and sediment. However, they do not remove many chemicals, pharmaceuticals, hazardous materials, industrial waste, or pesticides.

Some wastewater treatment plants are outdated and aren’t able to remove these types of pollutants, while others are not even required to do so. As a result, drinking water treatment plants are left to conduct the majority of tap water purification. But even so, many contaminants can still bypass filtering processes at these plants and end up in the water transported to your home and into your drinking glass.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Family from Toxic Waste Materials in Drinking Water

Although many water treatment plants aren’t equipped to remove all contaminants from water, you can still have great-tasting, contaminant-free water flowing through your tap by investing in a reliable home water filtration system. Depending on the type of filter you choose, it can eliminate contaminants from all the water entering your home or at a single faucet.

For example, the Springwell Whole House Water Filter treats water at the point of entry, filtering out toxic water contaminants, such as chlorine, herbicides, pesticides, VOCs, PFAS, and haloacetic acids. It also eliminates sediment, like sand, silt, dirt, rust, and other particulates.

The Springwell SWRO Under-Counter Reverse Osmosis Systems, on the other hand, treat water at a single tap. It fits comfortably under virtually any size sink, filtering sediment (sand, silt, dirt, clay, rust, etc.), heavy metals (lead, fluoride, iron, aluminum, arsenic, etc.), chemicals (chlorine, chloramine, chlorine byproducts, pesticides, herbicides, etc.), and more.

Call us at 800-589-5592 to learn more about our water filtration systems and how they can help protect your home against vicious water-borne contaminants caused by waste materials poured down drains and finding their way into drinking water.

Final Thoughts

Most homes in a community are connected somehow, so every unwanted item we put down our drains may end up in the environment and come back to us in some form. With that in mind, it’s time to end the bad habit of pouring things down the drain.

Remember that although water treatment plants are designed to treat contaminants in wastewater, not all are equipped to treat the water for chemicals such as pharmaceuticals, cooking oil, household grease, motor oil and other automotive fluids, paint, photographic chemicals, and others.

So, when in doubt, don’t pour it down the sink or into the sewer or storm drains. Also, check with your local authorities for toxic waste disposal locations and invest in a water filter system to ensure none of the potentially dangerous items discharged into drains from elsewhere end up in your precious drinking water.