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County's pill plans hope to avoid bad drug scene

Proposed program could offer an alternative to flushing old pills down the drain

Wait. Don't flush those old prescription drugs down the toilet.

It could cause serious problems for the region's water treatment plants. It also could harm fish and wildlife that depend on local rivers and streams.

That's why Washington County's Clean Water Services and other agencies are working with local governments to create a new expired drug take-back program.

The plan, which is in the very early stages, would provide an alternative to flushing pills down the drain by allowing people to turn their drugs in at take-back centers.

'Our two objectives are to create awareness that there is a better alternative and to establish a program that gets rid of the pharmaceuticals safely,' said Brenda Bateman, public policy coordinator for the Tualatin Valley Water District.

This month, the water district that provides services to most of unincorporated Washington County and some cities, discussed the proposal during a work session. The district saw a big need for the program because of possible links between flushed pharmaceuticals and hormonal mutations in fish.

Most water treatment plants across the country are meant to handle only organic waste. Old pills that dissolve into harmful chemicals often can't be treated.

Studies published in 2004 by the University of Colorado discovered the increased 'feminization' of fish. Male bass and white sucker fish began producing eggs and growing feminine sexual organs, something that the scientists suspected was from excessive estrogen in the water, possibly from the dissolving pills.

Regulation tangle

Washington County's take-back program is just one piece of a plan that could spread across Oregon. An effort led by the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies could promote the program in other cities and counties.

The take-back idea began in Oregon when Providence Healthcare System built an energy efficient medical center in Newberg that showcased the proposal. This month, Newberg's City Council approved the first pilot program for a pharmaceutical take-back program in Oregon through the city's adult-care facilities.

Locked containers will be stationed in Newberg's adult care facilities where staff will drop old prescription drugs, and some over-the-counter ones, into separate boxes.

Law enforcement will pick up the controlled substances and garbage collectors will pick up the over-the-counter medications, taking them to hazardous waste handling facilities to be burned.

'We are in the business of water and public health and will do all we can to protect them,' said Karen DeBaker of Clean Water Services. 'It's a topical conversation in the water industry right now, so we are pulling our resources together.'

'As communities, we are having a broader conversation about what we should do to dispose of the pharmaceuticals safely and properly,' Bateman said. 'But we don't want to put something out that the public gets all excited about, and then no way for them to participate in it yet.'

Among the challenges leaders face in the program are environment regulations and tangling with federal Drug Enforcement Agency policies on controlled substances.

As an example, Bateman said that DEA policy requires patients to give controlled substances, like tranquilizers, only to an officer of the law, who would be stationed at regional drop boxes.

One alternative could be a mail option, which is being tested in Maine and California.

Another alternative being tested in Washington allows people to bring over-the-counter drugs and antibiotics to a pharmacy or medical clinic for disposal. Though that program does not include controlled substances, many Washington residents are bringing in unwanted prescription drugs.

Common sense

Water treatment services and everyone involved, from pharmaceutical companies to poison control centers had to come to grips with where those pills were ending up.

'For the longest time, our focus as a society was to protect against accidental poisonings,' said Bateman.

'We were taught to flush it down the toilet,' said Debaker.

'Now we need to teach the proper disposal of pharmaceuticals to be as common sense as recycling. So people can ask themselves, what do you do with that container of medicine so that it doesn't become a hazard in the future?'