By Lary Kuhns & Dorothy Melanbianakis
Lurking in medicine cabinets and jumbled bathroom drawers, unused and expired pharmaceuticals are a common item in today’s households. Pharmaceuticals encompass a range of familiar items such as prescription and over-the-counter drugs, veterinary medicines, personal-care products, fragrances and vitamins. While beneficial to humans when used properly, accumulations of pharmaceutical waste and improper disposal methods raise valid concerns for the safety of our loved ones and the environment.
More than six million Americans use prescription drugs, sometimes powerful medications intended to treat specific conditions, with a common side-effect of producing a growing supply of unused and expired medications to dispose of. Due to their susceptibility for addiction and abuse, prescription drugs can be highly vulnerable to diversion — a term for when the medicine is used by those for which it is not intended — as well as misuse and abuse.
Studies show a majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from forgotten accumulations of unneeded and expired medicines available in the home.
Improper disposal of prescription drugs and other pharmaceuticals presents additional threats to health, safety and the environment. When flushed down the toilet or poured down the sink as a means of disposal, these chemical compounds are permitted to travel freely though our septic systems and municipal waste water treatment plants into our waterways, leading to potentially dangerous and undetected consumption.
Since the EPA does not regulate many of these chemicals in our drinking water, or their introduction to our environment, water treatment plants are rarely set up to detect — much less remove — these chemicals before they are discharged into our environment at large.
In 2010, in order to determine the effect of these “emerging parameters of concern” on the Cook Inlet beluga whale population, the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility conducted sampling to identify which un-regulated chemical compounds existed in their influent (wastewater entering the treatment plant) and effluent (wastewater exiting the treatment plant). More than 160 separate un-regulated compounds were identified; more than 100 of those compounds were identified as having potential for bioaccumulation in aquatic species.
On a national scale, the limited studies completed so far have focused on human health from pharmaceuticals in drinking water, and not the effects on the food we take out of the oceans, nor the effects on aquatic life or the ecosystem as a whole.
What is a responsible consumer to do?
Fortunately, there are resources in place to prevent this chemical load from being diverted to the wrong hands or being unnecessarily introduced into our environment.
One of the easiest methods for proper handling of pharmaceutical waste is by finding a receptacle specifically made for prescription drug and pharmaceutical disposal. Often located at police stations and pharmacies, these drop-boxes are equipped to take back pharmaceuticals year-round for your convenience.
Another easy option for disposal is by participating in one of the National Drug Take-Back Days, held twice a year, usually in April and October. These events allow consumers to bring their unused and expired pharmaceuticals to a central location to be disposed of in a safe, legal and environmentally friendly way.
These events also help spread the word about this waste stream and provide steps consumers can take to prevent misuse and abuse of their potentially dangerous drugs.
The next semi-annual National Drug Take-Back Day is Saturday, Oct. 26. In addition to this day’s events, law enforcement agencies in Anchorage, Soldotna and Homer stand by to provide proper pharmaceutical disposal services year-round. From the old penicillin from that strep throat last winter, to the crusty sunscreen bottle from vacations long ago, and even the medicine you stopped using when things got “better.” Alaskans can take some easy, free steps to ensure that they dispose of these chemical compounds responsibly, and keep them from entering our environment or harming our loved ones.
Check out Cook Inletkeeper’s new webpage dedicated to pharmaceutical disposal to find out how you can participate on Oct. 26 and where you can take your unused and expired pharmaceuticals. http://inletkeeper.org/clean-water/pharmaceutical-disposal
Sgt. Lary Kuhns is a 21-year veteran of law enforcement, including 13 years with the Homer Police Department.
Dorothy Melambianakis works with Cook Inletkeeper on a variety of clean water programs.
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