Angela Woodall | February 28, 2012 | Oakland Tribunecontracostatimes.com | Shared as an education material
Alameda County moved a step closer Tuesday to becoming the first county in the nation to make drug manufacturers responsible for disposing of unused and expired pharmaceuticals that are contaminating drinking water and putting youths and seniors at risk.
The county already operates drop-off boxes in several cities. But manufacturers and producers of drugs would be required to finance and operate the collection of unused prescription and over-the-counter medications under a proposal that made it past the first major hurdle during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
“We realize that this is an important step to protect residents and our environment” said District 4 Supervisor Nate Miley, who sponsored the plan. “We want pharmaceutical companies to take responsibility for the entire life span of their products.”
The measure, in the works for months, has attracted wide support from a variety of cities and agencies trying to cope with an ever-increasing demand for a permanent pharmaceutical take-back program.
Bay Area residents disposed of more than 60,000 pounds of unwanted pharmaceuticals at 128 sites across the nine counties, according to Miley’s figures.
Alameda County citizens alone returned roughly 4,000 pounds of pharmaceuticals. Santa Clara County residents disposed of 19,000 pounds and San Mateo County residents close to 18,000.
The cost is being passed on to local governments and taxpayers, advocates from agencies such as the Union Sanitary District, Save the Bay and the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District said.
Fueling the growing demand for a permanent disposal solution are environmental concerns and the alarming access to prescription drugs and over-the-counter medication by youths.
Excess and expired drugs sitting in cabinets are “wrought with temptation for kids,” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting.
Children aren’t getting drugs from a dealer in a dark alley, she said. They are getting them from medicine cabinets, which she called the “drug dealers of today.”
As a result, hospital visits for teenage prescription drug abuse between 1993 and 2003 have skyrocketed by 207 percent, Miley reported.
Meanwhile, Alameda County saw the rate of hospitalizations from unintentional poisonings among adults 60 and older jump by 43 percent between 1998 and 2006.
Making drug disposal easier would encourage senior citizens to get rid of expired medications and unneeded drugs, helping to eliminate medication mix-ups, Cait McWhir, of the county’s Adult Day Services Network wrote in a letter of support.
Another pressing concern behind the measure came from the environmental effect of pharmaceuticals, the use of which is expanding. Prescriptions for controlled substances increased by 154 percent between 1993 and 2003 nationally, Miley reported.
Municipal wastewater treatment plants, however, can’t keep up. They were designed to treat biological agents in drinking water — not antibiotics, steroids, anti-depressants and pain medications that people throw away or flush down toilets. Either way, the chemicals get into the water that comes through our taps.
Other countries, including Canada, France, Spain and Portugal, already require manufacturers to dispose of their leftover products. But so far, similar attempts have been unsuccessful in the United States, although federal legislation and numerous state bills have been introduced.
California fought for six years to pass legislation, but lobbyists blocked it, District 3 Supervisor Wilma Chan said during the Tuesday meeting. She is a former member of the state Assembly.
Tuesday’s vote was 4-0. District 1 Supervisor Nadia Lockyer was absent.
The measure in Alameda County will come back to the supervisors for a final vote March 13. Then drug companies would then have until Jan. 1, 2013, to come up with a take-back disposal blueprint that covers generic and brand name drugs. The county will hold a public hearing within 90 days after receiving the plan. The Alameda County Department of Environmental Health would oversee the program, which would be implemented using fees paid by the manufacturers. Pharmaceutical companies can’t pass on the extra cost to customers, under the measure. The Environmental Health Department can fine companies that don’t comply up to $1,000 per day. The worst offenders would face misdemeanor charges.