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Healthy water supply calls for proper disposal of unwanted meds

As awareness grows about the damage that unwanted pharmaceuticals could cause to the nation’s water supply, more government agencies and communities are hiring recycling companies to conduct “drop-off” days or weekends to collect such unwanted medications.

One such drop-off day in the suburbs of Boston, Mass., in the summer of 2008 resulted in a 30-gallon barrel being filled to the brim and overflowing with medications that the residents no longer needed.

At universities and high schools across the country, the dilemma of medications getting into the water supplies or groundwater aquifers has been prominent enough to develop class studies. A “Disposal of Unwanted Medications” curriculum has been developed to help high school youth understand why chemicals from medications are being found in the environment, the harm these chemicals can cause, and what can be done about it. Such courses often have a heavy emphasis on the science behind wastewater.

Part of the dilemma, of course, is that the federal government for years advised flushing prescriptions down the toilet once they were no longer needed. The premise had been it was the most effective way to keep the drugs out the hands of young children in the home. While it was safe and sound advice in that regard, it is now a cause for concern in that testing has shown pharmaceutical waste is getting into the nation’s water supplies via groundwater. An Associated Press investigation a year ago found that the drinking water supplies of 41 million Americans are contaminated with some level of pharmaceuticals.

Not all states mandate testing of water supplies for traces of controlled substances, but it is likely to become more common – as will “drop-off” days for the purpose of incinerating the drugs — which can be costly but is considered safer for the environment.What are the options at this time? Ask if your pharmacy is involved in any program in which unused medications are collected. Ask your local government leaders if the recycling companies they use have any protocol for unwanted pharmaceuticals. Watch for any possible “collection” days or weekends in your area.

Your state health or environmental protection departments may conduct annual “household hazardous waste” collection days as an alternative to special take-back events, and it is possible those events would include unused medications as well as supplies, such as hypodermic needles.Some states are testing mail-back programs, in which the drugs are sent directly to state drug-enforcement authorities for disposal.


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