Dropping Drugs

What should you do with expired or unneeded antibiotics, hormones, painkillers, Viagra? If you flush ’em, they end up in the bay, and soon enough, in fish and wildlife, where they can have sub-lethal and, in the case of hormones, feminizing effects on fish. Municipal wastewater treatment plants simply cannot remove the smorgasbord of chemicals we humans pour into our own bodies these days. If you dump them in the garbage, the compounds can leach into landfills—and ultimately find their way into the bay or other water bodies.

Because prescriptions are regulated by the federal DEA, which has stringent requirements for controlled substances (a law enforcement officer has to collect them), mail take-back or pharmacy take-back programs have been hard to get off the ground. But San Mateo County came up with a simple solution. After her father died in 2004, Supervisor Adrienne Tissier found herself digging through a medicine cabinet full of painkillers, sedatives, and other medicines. When she took office in 2005, Tissier, who was aware of the environmental impacts of flushing and dumping old meds, began to research disposal methods. After discovering that a convenient method did not exist, she worked with the San Mateo County Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association to create a program with minimal staffing. Refurbished, repainted postal collection boxes—each with several large red biohazard logos—were placed in three police departments. A hazardous waste disposal company periodically collects the contents. The program now has eleven drop-off sites countywide and has so far amassed over 1,750 pounds of pharmaceuticals. Illegal drugs—methamphetamine, for example—cannot be dropped in the boxes.

The program recently won the National Association of Counties 2007 Achievement Award. Tissier’s legislative aide Bill Chiang says their office has received calls from the East Bay Municipal Utility District, wastewater and health departments in Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Michigan, and the Miami-Dade County, Florida police department. “There is huge interest,” says Chiang. “Hopefully we won’t be so unique for long.”

Thankfully, they aren’t. Berkeley’s Teleosis Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the environmental impacts of health care, recently began partnering with several local pharmacies—including Elephant, Chimes, and Pharmaca—to take back unused meds. Teleosis also plans to gather data about which prescription meds are being turned in unused. Armed with data showing which meds aren’t being taken, the group hopes to stop such ‘scripts at the source—the doctor’s pen. For more information, contact the Teleosis Institute at 510-558-7285 or www.teleosis.org.

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