Thursday, May 7, 2009

For Old Drugs, New Tricks - Advice Veers Away From Flushing Unused Pills

At the Leesburg Pharmacy, located in a Loudoun County strip mall, a big, round fish tank sits atop the prescription counter. There are no fish inside, not even any water: The tank is a repository for unused medications. People can drop off the Vicodin that didn't get used once the pain of a root canal subsided. Or the heart pills remaining after a grandmother's death. Or an asthma inhaler that had passed its expiration date. Or an antidepressant that turned out to have unpleasant side effects.

Once a week, the tank is emptied; the drugs are packed in cartons by pharmacy personnel and ultimately incinerated by a commercial waste firm.

"Our customers are thrilled because they had no idea what else to do with this stuff," said Cheri Garvin, chief executive of the employee-owned pharmacy.

These are customers who are trying to do the responsible thing. Over the years, Americans have been alerted to the dangers of a lot of problematic waste materials -- paint thinner, batteries, air conditioners. But leftover pills can seem so small, so easily disposable, that many people routinely flush them down toilets, wash them down sinks or throw them in trash that goes to a landfill.

And then they often end up in places where they shouldn't be, like the public water supply.

The average American takes more than 12 prescription drugs annually, with more than 3.8 billion prescriptions purchased each year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The most commonly cited estimates from Environmental Protection Agency researchers say that about 19 million tons of active pharmaceutical ingredients are dumped into the nation's waste stream every year.


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