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Alameda County takes on drug companies over medication disposal

Discarded pills can wind up in landfills and waterways
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Discarded pills can wind up in landfills and waterways
 
Officials seek to shift cost of collecting, removing residents' unused medicine

Alameda County is poised to make drug companies pay for the safe collection and disposal of residents' unused medications.

The measure would apply to prescription drugs like penicillin as well as tightly controlled substances like OxyContin.

Supporters say the ordinance would help prevent overdoses and accidental poisonings and reduce water pollution – claims the pharmaceutical industry insists are not true.

Public agencies currently pay for 25 drug disposal sites in the county. (To see locations, click here.) The ordinance would require drug manufacturers and producers to pay for the disposal of their products or face fines of up to $1,000 a day. 

“The county should not be responsible for continuing to bear the financial burden alone,” said Nate Miley, president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and sponsor of the ordinance.

The measure also requires drug manufacturers to fund any efforts by Alameda County law enforcement agencies to collect controlled substances. Federal law requires that officers be present when such drugs, like Adderall, are returned. 

The ordinance is designed to make it easier for residents to get rid of their unwanted prescription medications. But it does not stipulate where or how drugs would be collected, for instance, whether there would be collection bins at hospitals or pharmacies, or if residents would have to return their unused medications through the mail.

“If they can create drugs that save our lives, I’m confident they can figure out ways to get pills back,” said Heidi Sanborn, the executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, an organization that promotes sustainability through better product design. 

On July 24, supervisors will cast their final votes on the Alameda County Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance. During an initial vote last Tuesday, they approved the ordinance unanimously.

At the meeting, the measure's backers dominated the public comment period. They stressed the environmental and public health benefits of the proposed ordinance.

“Wastewater plants are major pathways of pharmaceuticals into the environment,” said Melody LaBella, pollution prevention program coordinator at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District.

Much of that pollution comes through humans excreting the drugs after ingesting them. Some of it comes from unused medications that are flushed down the toilet. Wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove the drugs.

“Unwanted pharmaceuticals are the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” said LaBella.

A San Ramon mother told supervisors about her son's death from an accidental overdose.

“I never in my wildest dreams would have dreamed that our family would have been embroiled in something like this,” said April Rovero, who founded the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, after her 21-year-old son, Joey, died in 2009.

Industry representatives countered that the ordinance will do little to prevent either water pollution or accidental overdoses. 

“There is no evidence that this will effect the number of poisonings in the community,” said Ritchard Engelhardt, vice president of government affairs for BayBio, a trade association representing the life science industry in Northern California.

Supervisor Scott Haggerty admonished industry representatives at the meeting.

“I would much rather us spend our money on trying to figure out how to make it happen than fight about why we don’t want it to happen," he said. 

In an email, Engelhardt refused to comment on whether his organization intends to sue if the ordinance is passed, as expected.

Consuelo Hernandez, vice president of government affairs for the California Healthcare Institute, a trade association that represents 300 biomedical companies, universities and research institutes, said in an interview that her organization “doesn’t have any plans to sue," but she added: “We can’t predict what we will do in the future.”

The board had considered a previous version of the ordinance in February, but then agreed to hold a series of stakeholder meetings to revise it, after requests from pharmaceutical industry lobbyists. In the current version, pharmacies and retailers are not required to participate in the drug disposal program. 

If the ordinance takes effect, supervisors hope others will follow suit. "It could be a model ordinance that everyone could use, not just in this state, but throughout the country," said Miley. 

San Francisco already has a pilot drug disposal program, which has been collecting unused medication since May. Genentech and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America are paying $110,000 to fund it. The pharmaceutical industry agreed to do so after San Francisco supervisors considered adopting an ordinance to force them to collect and dispose of their own products. 

Old medications can be deposited in bins at 13 pharmacies in San Francisco, as well as 10 police stations. Only the police stations accept controlled substances. 

All of the participating pharmacies are independent businesses. But pharmacies that are not part of the program, like CVS and Walgreens, are required to display signs instructing customers where they can dispose of their unwanted medications properly.

“We’ve kept a ton of unwanted medicine from going into landfill or into the sewage system, so we think it’s a huge success,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, director of policy and communications for the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

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