Head to the Police with Your Old Drugs

By TIM FAULKNER

On a recent visit to my local CVS, I asked a clerk if the store takes back old medications. His response: “Obama ended funding for the program.”

He told me I could instead buy envelopes to fill with my unused drugs and send them off to a company for disposal. I bought two for $3.99 apiece.

I also looked into the claim that President Obama eliminated funding for drug take-back programs. If one person must be to blame for the end of a government service, then, yes, it appears that the president put a stop to the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days, which were held nine times between 2010 and 2014. He did so in September by expanding the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act. When he signed the legislation in 2010, it only permitted collections of used medications at police stations or events organized by police. The recent expansion allows hospitals, pharmacies and other medical facilities to collect unwanted prescriptions onsite.

The benefit of the revised Drug Disposal Act is that more places can register to collect unwanted medications. The problem is there are no tax dollars to pay for shipping and disposing of the drugs. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) previously funded shipping and disposal at 6,000 locations during the National Take-Back Days. Under the new plan, each pharmacy, police station or other eligible site must register as a collection with the DEA and pay for the transportation and disposal.

DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said the national collections days were only a temporary courtesy funded by the agency. “DEA is not in the business of disposing of other peoples’ drugs,” she said.

Fortunately, nearly every police station in Rhode Island and Massachusetts offers drop-off bins in their lobby for old medications. The bins don’t accept liquids or syringes, but the collection is free.

At major pharmacies, collection is handled by private companies with consumers paying the freight. The pre-pay envelopes are also sold at Rite Aid and Walgreens. Although, when I checked a second CVS, the pharmacy wasn’t aware of the envelope program.

Health and environmental risks
Each year, Rhode Islanders spends $674 million on prescription drugs; Massachusetts $4.3 billion and Connecticut $3 billion, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. A 2013 study by the Mayo Clinic found the 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug and more than half take two. Antibiotics, antidepressants and opioid painkillers are the top prescribed drugs.

Disposal of pharmaceuticals is a significant environmental issue. Health and environmental experts strongly discourage flushing old medications down the drain or toilet. Tests have shown traces of prescription and non-prescription drugs in public water supplies and waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are studying the health risks. But concerns about the impacts on fish and aquatic life, as well as human health, are growing.

One study shows the impacts of estrogen, common in birth-control drugs, on fish populations. In 2008, The Associated Press found traces of prescription medications in 24 major metropolitan drinking water supplies. Fortunately, water supplies in eastern and central Massachusetts haven't shown signs of prescription medications. Officials say it's unlikely that pharmaceuticals and residue from personal-care products are present in Rhode Island’s largest public water source, the Scituate Reservoir.

Environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council say medical facilities like hospitals and nursing homes are bigger polluters, with many still flushing medications down the toilet or drain.

If police stations aren’t an option, the EPA, FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all suggest disposing of prescription drugs in a sealed container and throwing it in the trash. But, waste experts admit all landfills eventually leak, increasing the risk of effluent reaching waterways.

So, while drug take-back events might be gone for now there are at least places to dispose of most medications safely and for little or no cost.

Tim Faulkner is an ecoRI News reporter.