When we turn on the tap, we hope to enjoy a clean glass of water. However, more and more prescription drugs, such as anti-anxiety or anti-seizure medications and even hormones, are being found in our drinking water. With no consistent and convenient method of disposal, residents either stockpile unwanted drugs in their medicine cabinets, where they can end up in the wrong hands, or flush them down the drain, where they can pass through wastewater treatment plants and be discharged into waterways. Improper disposal of medication is a source of water pollution, and as consumption grows, so will the quantity of drugs appearing in our water supply. We need a safe way to dispose of these drugs, and instead of placing the responsibility on cash-strapped cities, pharmaceutical companies that are producing these medications should be the ones to pay for the disposal programs.
According to the Kaiser Foundation, pharmaceutical use has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2011, Californians received almost 400 million prescription drugs from pharmacies. Most of these drugs are not regularly tested for in waterways or public water supplies. However, in March 2008, after a five-month inquiry, the Associated Press reported that drugs had been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas in the United States, including locations in California.
Although the levels may be low, many of these drugs were designed to be effective in small doses. We know that they are safe for adult consumption over a period of weeks or months, but we do not know how safe they are when taken over a lifetime or the impacts they may have on children or pregnant women. While the effects of drugs in our water system on human health are currently being studied, scientists have been noting changes in our water environment for years. There have been cases of feminization of male fish — disrupting their ability to breed — and higher rates of hermaphroditic frogs.
Currently, the best method we have to keep these medications from ending up in the wrong hands or being flushed is through drug take-back programs. During the past eight years, Bay Area local governments have worked to establish collection programs for unwanted and expired medications. The city of Palo Alto, which has one of the Bay Area’s first programs, has collected more than 30,000 pounds of medicine since 2005. The program in central Contra Costa County, which started in February 2009 as a one-year pilot at two Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department locations in Martinez, operates as a partnership between Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, Mt. View Sanitary District and the law enforcement agencies of Contra Costa County, the cities of Clayton, Concord, Martinez, Orinda and Pleasant Hill, and the towns of Danville and Moraga. In a little more than four years, the program has collected more than 35,000 pounds of medication.
While local governments are helping to get unwanted medicines out of people’s homes, there is great inefficiency in this patchwork of programs, most of which don’t take back controlled substances. Also, many of these programs operate at police stations — places that most people don’t routinely visit. For many cities, these programs are too expensive to continue funding on their own. For example, Santa Clara County’s program, which serves only a small portion of the population there, is estimated to cost around $100,000 per year. To help mitigate the burden on local governments, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, has introduced SB 727, which would require that pharmaceutical companies pay for and maintain a safe, convenient and effective drug take-back program.
By charging producers with this responsibility, SB 727 will allow private industry to most efficiently and cost-effectively design and fund take-back programs, which will ultimately reduce the cost for this service and result in the collection of greater quantities of unwanted medication. This is a common-sense approach that will provide more collection locations, making it easier for residents to safely dispose of their unwanted medications. It is time for the drug companies to step up and take responsibility for the drugs they produce and help dispose of their leftovers properly and safely, as they do in other countries, including Canada.
Take action on this issue by encouraging your state representatives to support SB 727 and properly dispose of any unused or expired medications. To find a free disposal location near you, visit www.baywise.org or call 1-888-BAYWISE.
David Han is a UC Berkeley alum who recently graduated with his Master’s in Public Health from San Jose State University.