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Clancy Calkins/MEDILL

Experts say that flushing drugs down the drain has adverse effects on human and environmental health, a habit that is sometimes perpetuated by film and pop culture.

Prescription Take-Back event could mean cleaner water, experts say

by K. Clancy Calkins
Apr 24, 2013

Related Links

Midwest Regional Water District Press Release for Take-Back EventEPA: Personal Care Products and Effects on EnvironmentSearch for a Take-Back site near you

Details of Saturday's Take-Back event

From 10 a.m. to Saturday Chicago residents can drop off unused prescription drugs at one of the following three area water reclamation plants:

•    Stickney Water Reclamation Plant, 6001 W. Pershing Road, Cicero
•    O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant, 3500 Howard St., Skokie
•    Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, 400 East 130th St., Chicago

For many, flushing pills down the toilet is the cleanest, easiest way to get rid of prescription drugs, but environmental experts say it is contaminating our water.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s fifth annual Take-Back initiative set to unfold this Saturday in multiple locations throughout the metropolitan area aims to collect prescription drugs and dispose of them properly, an effort that may not only keep homes safe, but also water supplies.

While the main goal of the event is to keep prescriptions out of the wrong hands, according to a DEA spokeswoman, special interest groups are jumping on board to support the side effects of the program — keeping waterways clear of harmful chemicals.

“We have seen emerging evidence of the effects of prescriptions on water quality,” said Betsy Hands director of outreach and community relations at Friends of the Chicago River said. “It is not our area of expertise but we are promoting the event.”

The Take-Back initiatives, which are co-sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department, are gaining popularity throughout the nation as research yields information on the negative effects of drugs in the water supply on both humans and wildlife, according to Bryan Brooks, director of environmental health studies at Baylor University.

Brooks said there is an increasing concern for antibiotic resistance, which the World Health Organization cites as its biggest threat to human health.

"It may be difficult to treat [a patient],” Brooks said. "They may be infected with antibiotic resistant organisms that are difficult, if not impossible to treat."

Wildlife may be susceptible, too. According to Brooks, the effects on humans can be used to analyze wildlife, which are “much more like us than we expect.”

“We need to understand the aquatic impacts in a more advanced way and using the available pharmacology data from humans can be a very important way to identify which classes of drugs can be harmful for wildlife," Brooks said.

Organizations, such as healthcare facilities, that handle large amounts of prescriptions have already seen an increase of regulations that dictate how drugs are disposed.

One area hospice spokeswoman said that there are specific regulations on drug disposal the Food and Drug Administration sets for healthcare facilities and organizations that may end up with a lot of unused prescriptions.

“We don’t pour drugs down the drain,” the spokeswoman said. “Since 2007 we have been following the FDA regulations that tell us to put the drugs in kitty litter or coffee grounds before disposing of them in the hazardous waste disposal.”

But area residents might need advice on what to do with their personal supply of medication.

“I just hang on to them because I don't know what to do with the leftovers,” Chicago resident Michael Lynt said, adding that he doesn’t know what to do with any specialized materials like paint or batteries.
"I have whole cabinets full of medicine," Lynt said. “I should talk to my wife about getting rid of some of those things."

According to a DEA spokeswoman, the drugs are burned after they are collected.

According to the DEA website, more than 2 million tons of prescription drugs have been collected nationally since Take-Back day started in 2008.