Keeping Drugs Out of Our Waterways: Safe Drug Disposal Program

We are fortunate to live at a time when medical advances, including the development of antibiotics and other types of drugs, have enhanced and lengthened human life. Unused medications, however, pose some risks to human health and the environment that are not widely recognized. When they get into the wrong hands, unused medications can lead to drug abuse and accidental poisonings. Pharmaceuticals are also ending up in our waterways, including drinking water sources.

That is why Clean Water Action has joined with local government, wastewater professionals, senior citizen advocates, and those concerned with drug abuse to stop unused or out of date drugs from getting into the environment or into the hands of those who will misuse them.

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Drugs in the environment have definite and disturbing impacts on aquatic species. Synthetic estrogens in oral contraceptives have been linked to decreased reproduction in aquatic species; feminizing male fish and reducing fertility. Anti-depressants are causing behavioral changes in some wildlife species, altering reaction times to predators and changing foraging behavior.

Hypertension drugs, antibiotics, and antihistamines are among the products that bioaccumulate in aquatic species and interfere with the food chain.

The potential impact on humans has not been well studied, though levels are considered too low to be of acute concern. However, scientists consistently admit that they do not know what the effects of long term exposure to low doses or the mixture of drugs in water will have, especially to vulnerable populations like children. What we do know is with the ever growing use of medications, the presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment is also likely to increase.

Instead of waiting until we see negative human health effects, we need to act now to prevent this problem from getting worse.

Stopping the problem at the source

There are a variety of ways that drugs get into the environment. One of the most significant is when unused medications are disposed of down the drain or toilet. Wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove these chemicals from sewage; they are eventually released into the marine environment when treated wastewater is discharged into nearby waterways. Throwing drugs in the trash, even in an unusable form is also a problem because water in landfills is treated through the wastewater system and eventually released into local waterways.

We can stop unused medications from getting into our water resources and reduce misuse by providing collection at secure, convenient sites and then properly disposing of the drugs as hazardous waste.

Convenient, secure drug disposal programs work. For instance, during a 30 month limited pilot program, the City and County of San Francisco collected 23 tons of drugs, keeping them out of San Francisco Bay and the hands of those who would abuse them!

Holding those who profit responsible

Many communities in California have collection programs, operated by local government at taxpayer expense. These programs are often limited to occasional collection events or are inconveniently located for consumers. In addition, they can be very costly for a local government to run. Programs run by drug manufacturers in other countries, on the other hand, have proven to cost consumers nothing and the companies pay only pennies per prescription.

Clean Water Action supports producer-financed waste collection, referred to as “extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR holds product manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, including disposal at the end of their useful life. This is not a new concept –producers of mercury-containing thermostats, paint, and mattresses have successfully established take-back programs in California for their products.

Producer supported drug disposal programs are working in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. The cost to these companies has been so minimal, they have not raised prices of their products to pay for the programs. Unfortunately, these same companies, many of whom are based in the U.S., are not willing to do the right thing here.

Supporting Action at a Local Level

Alameda County took the brave step to address this situation in 2012 by passing a first-in-the-nation ordinance requiring drug manufacturers, who earn billions from pharmaceutical sales, to develop and support convenient disposal programs for unused prescription drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry’s response was to sue Alameda County. In October 2014, the Ninth Federal Court of Appeal upheld the ordinance.

Santa Barbara County-On June 21, 2016, Santa Barbara became the first Southern California county to pass an EPR pharmaceutical ordinance.

Contra Costa County:  Thanks to a 4 year effort spearheaded by Supervisor Mary Peipho, Contra Costa County ended 2016 by passing its “Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance” requiring medication manufacturers to create a stewardship organization that will offer pharmaceutical drop-off locations throughout the county's unincorporated areas - with an emphasis on pharmacies and hospitals.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, led by Board President London Breed, unanimously passed its Safe Drug Disposal ordinance in March 2015. It was quickly signed into law by Mayor Ed. Lee. This ordinance requires manufacturers of prescription and over the counter drugs to build on the success of the county’s pilot program and ensure convenient medicine disposal options for all residents.

San Mateo County’s Board unanimously passed an ordinance on April 14, 2015. Despite an industry plea to postpone the vote, strong public support for an industry funded and implemented program prompted the Board to move the ordinance quickly. Like San Francisco’s law, this ordinance will require collection of both over the counter and prescription drugs

Santa Clara County became the fourth in the state to adopt an ordinance on May 19, 2015, again requiring over the counter and prescription medications to be collected through industry funded programs.

Marin County followed the example of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties by adopting an ordinance covering over the counter and prescription drugs on August 11, 2015. The vote came 2 weeks after an informational Board hearing that drew a wide range of speakers in support, including Clean Water Action. The only opposition came from an industry group called the California Life Sciences Association.

Santa Cruz became the 6th county in California to adopt a pharmaceutical ordinance on December 8, 2015. Clean Water Action had collected hundreds of letters from local residents in support, which were delivered in person to the Board of Supervisors. These letters helped us ensure that the final ordinance required manufacturers to implement disposal programs for both prescription and over the counter medications. Santa Cruz is a leader in the state in that it already has a program to collect sharps (needles), with collection bins around the county. The pharmaceutical ordinance will go into effect in June 2016, with all pharmacies participating in the manufacturer funded program.

Other Counties Taking Action:

Los Angeles County – Despite strong public and county staff support for a drug and sharps (needle) EPR ordinance in Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors punted in support of further research into the issue and an “education” program touted by industry.  Supervisors Michael Antonovich, Don Knabe, and Mark Ridley-Thomas bought into industry lobbying efforts that led to the delay, while Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis both expressed their disappointment and abstained from supporting the delay.  With Antonovich and Knabe termed out of office, Clean Water Action will be working with its regional allies and the newest members of the Board to reintroduce the ordinance in the year ahead.

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