By Brian Smith
We have a prescription drug disposal problem. The lack of options to easily and safely dispose of unwanted pharmaceutical drugs is not only contributing to the drug abuse epidemic in Erie County, but also to the pollution of our Great Lakes.
Many people stockpile unused drugs in household medicine cabinets, which are then accessible to abusers or lead to accidental poisonings, especially among children. The national drug abuse epidemic is now the leading cause of injury deaths in the U.S., ahead of car accidents.
The lack of disposal options is also perpetuating the antiquated practice of flushing unwanted drugs. Sewage treatment plants are not designed to remove these contaminants; therefore every time we flush we are polluting the Great Lakes with trace amounts of drugs. A recent study led by the University at Buffalo found high concentrations of antidepressants in numerous fish in the Niagara River.
Entities ranging from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Environmental Protection Agency deem pharmaceutical take-back programs (i.e. safe drug collection kiosks, mail-back programs or take-back events) as the most effective drug disposal method.
Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke introduced legislation that would require the pharmaceutical industry to fund a pharmaceutical take-back program, which would provide all county residents with greater access to safe disposal options. While the pharmaceutical industry makes billions of dollars in profits, it currently pays nothing toward safe disposal while taxpayers foot the bill. The cost to pharmaceutical manufacturers would be negligible – communities that have passed similar laws have estimated a cost of just one cent per $33 of medications sold.
Just as Erie and others (a similar law was passed in Rockland County, another is being considered in Westchester County) are stepping up with forward-thinking policies, Albany has put up a major roadblock. What started as a well-intentioned effort to require chain pharmacies to provide pharmaceutical take-back options for their customers ended up as watered-down legislation that hurls the safe disposal movement backward.
The state bill, passed on the last day of the session, fails to provide take-back options for numerous rural communities and allows pharmacies to charge the public for take-back, which only serves to discourage safe disposal. The most disturbing aspect of the bill is that it pre-empts local governments from implementing any local law related to safe pharmaceutical disposal. So Albany passes a weak bill, and tells local governments that they can’t do something better.
If efforts in Albany to pre-empt local governments from banning plastic microbeads had been successful a couple of years ago, Erie County would not have passed its local law and the current national ban may have never happened. Albany shouldn’t stand in our way on the pharmaceutical issue either. When the bill is delivered to the governor’s desk, we need him to veto it.
Brian Smith is associate executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.