Michelle Cannon, at left with her seventh grade honors science class.
Story and photos by Daniel Friedman
The students in Michelle Cannon’s seventh grade honors science class at Mountain Trail Middle School in the Paradise Valley district won the 2011 Disney Planet Challenge in Arizona for which they will receive Disney DVDs, water bottles and other Disney stuff.
The real value of the project though is her students researched a topic of their own choosing. Before they settled on a topic, they considered saving the black-footed ferret or the hazards of cigarette smoke as possible choices. Small groups in class developed research ideas and then had to “sell” those ideas to the whole class.
The project they eventually settled on is titled, “Save our Water: A Medication Mix.” They investigated the proper disposal of prescription medications to keep them out of the hands of kids, or adults, who might abuse them, as well as what happens to medication that is flushed down the toilet, tossed down the sink or ingested per a doctor’s orders.
It turns out, as seventh-grader Abrie Berkowitz learned, “Most of the medications in our water come from human excretions.” People take their medicines; it ends up in the water supply. And not just painkillers, like aspirin. “I was surprised to figure out there were tons of medication in our water. I figured we’d just find painkillers and stuff like that, not dangerous stuff like blood thinners,” says Kya Shupert. Antibiotics, anti-depressants, allergy medicationss, cancer treatment drugs; any medicine people take eventually ends up in the water supply.
What effect it has on humans is not yet known but the reproductive systems of fish can be deformed, as described in an article from the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center in their July 2000 newsletter that cites research from 1999. The mix of personal care products and medicine finding their way to the water supply is of particular importance to Arizona because streams in arid regions often rely for their flow on effluent contaminated by medication.
Student Clayton Kingsley learned from the project that “over 80% of the water supply has been polluted with medication.” Mostly rivers and sewer water, effluent, that gets recycled he says. He adds. “It’s too expensive to do [filter it] with reverse osmosis” which the best way to clean it.
So yes, the reverse osmosis system in your kitchen will filter out medications in the water, but reverse osmosis uses a lot of water during the process.
The students made a large poster, but as there are 29 of them, it isn't as easy to see as their "Save Our Water" poster.
In addition to the science research, the seventh graders persuaded 500 students to sign a pledge to properly dispose of medications in their households. They asked that I publicize the National Take-Back Day, April 28. An initiative sponsored by the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Agency. The initiative website lists thousands of locations all over the country that accept outdated or unused prescription medication for disposal.
Cannon said the project was very beneficial to her students. They had fun doing the research and learning what they wanted to learn. For Cannon, she was able integrate the many environmental standards in the state curriculum into the project.