Americans spend more than $300 billion on prescription drugs every year, but end up only taking about 60 percent of them.
The rest, all those unneeded pain relievers, steroids, hormones and antibiotics, are disposed of, often by consumers who throw them in the trash or flush them down the toilet. The end result is powerful drugs accumulating in landfills and the watershed, neither of which are optimal, says Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council.
Sanborn said water treatment plants have been largely unsuccessful in removing pharmaceuticals from the water supply. As a result, 80 percent of streams in the United States containing measurable concentrations of prescription and nonprescription drugs, steroids and reproductive hormones, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
“What does that mean for us?” she asked. “There have been various studies and none of the outcomes are good.”
According to research, exposure to even low levels of drugs negatively impacts fish and other aquatic species and may ultimately impact human health, she said.
And while the amount of medication being flushed nationwide is unclear, Sanborn said, research by Cal Recycle shows it’s done quite frequently.
Brad Brazill confirms that.
Brazill, owner and pharmacist at El Macero Pharmacy, says, “it’s common that people throw them in the garbage or flush them down the toilet.”
“We don’t want expired drugs in the landfill or watershed,” he said, “but we also don’t want them to hang around the house” where they are accessible to children.
That’s why Brazill has partnered with the product stewardship council to help consumers safely dispose of unwanted medication. His pharmacy is now home to a large, secure bin provided by the council where consumers can drop off unwanted pharmaceuticals and Brazill himself will cover the cost of regularly emptying the bin and burning the contents.
“We’re doing it as a community service,” he explained.
El Macero Pharmacy is home to one of three bins now available in Yolo County through the “Don’t Rush to Flush” program. Funded by a grant from the Rose Foundation, the product stewardship council purchased bins for pharmacies in Davis, Winters and West Sacramento, as well as for three locations in Sacramento County.
In each case, the pharmacies cover the cost of destroying the contents.
Since the campaign started a few weeks ago, Sanborn has heard from many other pharmacies asking for a bin, “but we don’t have more funding for more bins,” she said, adding she’s hopeful more community partners will step forward to cover the $800 cost of each bin.
The bins themselves are heavy-duty containers which Sanborn likened to “bear boxes” that can’t be broken into. Their contents would be prized by those looking to sell the drugs on the street, which is why the bins are similar in size and weight to an ATM machine.
All of the participating pharmacies already have contracts with companies that pick up and dispose of expired medications on a regular basis and they will do the same for the “Don’t Rush to Flush” bins. Only two individuals will be able to unlock the bins — the pharmacist and the driver who collects the pharmaceuticals for destruction.
When the bins are emptied, the contents will be weighed in order to keep track of the amount of medication being deposited.
“We’ll know how much actually comes from the public,” Sanborn said.
Certain items cannot be dropped in the bins, including controlled substances, but that could soon change, Sanborn said.
Currently all unwanted controlled substances are supposed to be taken to a law enforcement agency authorized to accept them, but Sanborn said draft regulations by the Drug Enforcement Administration would allow controlled substances to be deposited in the bins along with other pharmaceuticals.
And not having to visit a law enforcement agency could go a long way toward keeping pharmaceuticals out of the watershed, Brazill said.
The local pharmacist noted that often people are intimidated by the idea of visiting the police department and personally handing over medications.
“This is more anonymous,” he noted.
It’s also more convenient.
The bin is available to the public whenever El Macero Pharmacy is open and the prescriptions need not have come from that pharmacy.
The bin is already filling up.
“Quite a bit of people are using it,” Brazill said.
And while participating pharmacists are footing the bill for destroying the medications, legislation pending in California would put some of the onus on pharmaceutical companies.
A study by Cal Recycle, Sanborn said, concluded that there should be some level of producer responsibility for collection.
In the meantime, willing pharmacists will be covering the cost.
The El Macero Pharmacy is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The pharmacy, 417 Mace Blvd., Suite F, is closed on Sundays.
Before disposing of medications there, all pills should be removed from their original containers and placed in plastic bags. Liquids and creams should be left in their original containers but identifying information on the labels should be removed or blacked out. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs, pet medications and medicated ointments can all go in the bins, but controlled substances, sharp and bloody or infectious waste cannot.
In addition to El Macero Pharmacy, the two other Yolo County locations with bins are Jefferson Pharmacy in West Sacramento and Eagle Drug in Winters.
For more information about the “Don’t Rush to Flush” program, visit http://DontRushToFlush.org or contact Sanborn at 916-706-3420 or Heidi@CalPSC.org
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy