By andrew Katz
WASHINGTON – Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler said Tuesday that pharmaceuticals flushed into the waste stream pose a risk to the environment and called for a national prescription drug “take-back” program to remedy the issue.
Gansler moderated a panel at the National Association of Attorneys General meeting on the ecological risks of throwing away medicines. He also spoke of efforts to control the impact on waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.
“We have many fish in Maryland and Virginia and other states that no longer know whether they are boys or girls,” said Gansler, noting reports of fish found with both male and female reproductive parts in the region.
One panelist said past animal studies also linked increased populations of female fish and a reduction in the size of male reproductive organs in alligators, plus sexual development and behavioral problems in humans, to prescription waste issues.
The problem is pharmaceuticals entering rivers and streams from wastewater, agricultural run-off, prescription drug production and “what we do” with leftover medicines,” said Ellen Silbergeld, an environmental research professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“Prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and antibiotics are among the top four most frequently detected chemicals in our water systems of this country,” said Silbergeld.
“Nearly half of Americans take one to two prescription drugs every year and, in fact, a large number take many more,” she added. “This kind of activity directly impacts on our environment.”
Another panelist recalled a study that concluded up to 70 percent of the compounds people consume are “excreted unchanged in the urine,” and can threaten surrounding ecosystems.
The nation must improve its management of pharmaceutical use, production and disposal, invest in the national sanitation infrastructure and gain control over non-essential issues like agriculture and the widespread use of antimicrobial agents in personal care products, in order to begin solving the problem,” said Silbergeld.
A national “take-back” program, which Gansler called for, was the primary solution discussed. It would offer a “green” way for people to toss out prescriptions.
Gansler said he hopes for a “true” program headed by pharmaceutical companies in conjunction with drug stores that would allow customers to obtain refills and dispose of the rest in “oil drum” outside the store.
“It would stay there until it gets filled up and every month or so, the sheriffs or law enforcement would come, take that drum to a hazmat incineration facility and (safely get rid of their prescriptions),” he said, adding that such a program would not cost much.
The “take-back” program would also work to decrease the prevalence of medications available to those not prescribed, such as teenagers, some of whom Gansler said take prescription drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets and share them with friends.
“They’ll put them in a bowl, they’ll have a party and they’ll actually just take them — figuring they’ve been approved by somebody,” he said.
Silbergeld agreed that a national “take-back” program would be effective.
“It would undoubtedly help the problem and in some areas of the country, it would go a very long way to reducing this specific hazard.”