Last week, I joined with Congressman Jay Inslee (D-WA) to introduce the “Safe Drug Disposal Act of 2009,” legislation to address the risks our families, communities, and the environment face from unwanted or unused drugs left in the home or disposed of improperly.
Medications can accumulate in numerous settings – nursing homes, hospitals, hospice care facilities, in home-based care settings and private residences. To encourage safe disposal of these drugs, a number of communities have developed so-called “drug take-back programs” or sponsored collection events that allow consumers to properly dispose of unwanted or unused drugs. These programs reduce the quantity of unused pharmaceuticals entering the environment and reduce the amount of drugs available for diversion, theft, abuse, or accidental poisoning.
While these programs clearly benefit the consumer, they can be difficult to administer because, under current law, a representative of law enforcement must be present to take custody of medications that are classified as controlled substances. Our legislation, therefore, amends the Controlled Substances Act to allow prescription holders, or caretakers of prescription holders, to safely dispose of unused prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs through Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approved state-run drug take-back programs.
For many years, consumers were advised to dispose of their unwanted medications by flushing them down the toilet. We now know that chemicals from medications can end up in our rivers and lakes and eventually enter our drinking water supply. In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that some traces of common medicines such as acetaminophen, hormones, blood pressure medications, codeine and antibiotics were detected in very low concentrations in 80 percent of samples taken from 139 streams across 30 states. At least 46 million people each year are exposed to trace amounts of pharmaceuticals through this route.
Aquatic organisms may experience pronounced effects from continual exposure to these compounds. Researchers are finding evidence that even extremely diluted concentrations of pharmaceutical residues harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species in the wild. Pharmaceuticals are seen as a source of the endocrine disrupting compounds in wastewater effluent that are suspected of causing the high rate of intersex characteristics detected in certain species of smallmouth bass found in the Potomac River. While the direct effects on humans are unclear, their effects on animals portend serious long term consequences that require further research.
For parents with teenage children, unused medications also pose a significant threat. Nonmedical use of prescription drugs is rising in the U.S. Recent studies have shown that abuse of prescription drugs is increasing. Teenagers were found are more likely to have abused a prescription pain medication to get high than they are to have experimented with a variety of illicit drugs including Ecstasy, cocaine, crack, and LSD. Fifty percent of the teenagers surveyed indicated that prescription drugs are widely available; a third indicated that they were easy to purchase over the Internet; and 63 percent said they could easily obtain prescription opiates and painkillers from their own home.
It is clear that the lack of an effective disposal mechanism for excess pharmaceuticals is contributing to contamination of our drinking water supply and leading to a dangerous increase in nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals by young people. Our legislation easing restrictions on drug take back programs opens the door for different approaches in different communities to combat these problems. It’s an effort to help our nation move toward a comprehensive solution on this increasingly troubling issue.