Community leaders in Alameda and three other counties in California and Washington have adopted laws requiring pharmaceutical companies to finance drug take-back programs.
Drug take-back programs combat prescription drug abuse by removing unused medications from homes and are an environmentally safe method of disposal.
A study by the U.S Geological Survey in 2000 found measurable amounts of one or more medications in 80 percent of water samples drawn from 139 streams in 30 states. These drugs included antibiotics, antidepressants, heart medications and hormones.
According to a 2007 medication collection program in California, half of all medications are discarded. This highlights the enormous need for proper disposal.
Water treatment methods reduce the concentrations of medications in drinking water, but there is still drug pollution in the water we drink. The Associated Press uncovered studies in 2008 that found water supplies in 24 metropolitan areas had detectable levels of medications.
At this time, there is scant evidence that drug pollution in drinking water has an effect on humans. But it is possible that trace amounts of medicines can accumulate and affect more vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women or individuals with disabilities.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that drug pollution affects wildlife. Studies have shown that estrogen from birth control pills and hormone treatments have polluted water and changed female-to-male ratios within aquatic populations. Fish with both male and female characteristics have been found in the most polluted sections of the Potomac River. Other studies have found antidepressant medications in the brain tissue of fish downstream from wastewater treatment plants.
Drug take-back programs also help to keep prescription drugs off the illegal market. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified prescription drug abuse as one of the top five health threats of 2014. Overdose deaths from prescription opioid medications now exceed deaths from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined.
Drug companies have been fighting the laws requiring them to finance take-back programs. Drug makers claim such laws are unconstitutional. The U.S Supreme Court denied the claims of drug makers in late May, making the costs of take-back programs the responsibility of drug makers.
This Supreme Court decision should encourage other local governments across the country to establish secure drug take-back programs. With funding from drug companies, these programs will not strain local budgets.
In the meantime, safe disposal boxes can be found in local police departments around Connecticut, with drop boxes pending in Bridgeport and Winchester. The FDA also provides instructions for the disposal of unused medicines on their website.
Selena West is an intern at the Office of the Community Lawyer. She is a sophomore at New York University.