Proper drug disposal key to keeping bay clean

May 10, 2010 5:31:57 PM PDT
In the Bay Area, it is a constant struggle to keep the bay clean and one key to that is preventing unused medicines from getting into the water.

Waste managers hope that people will not dump their unwanted prescriptions down the drain or in the trash, yet many people do not know what else to do with them. 7 On Your Side found ways to dispose of your unwanted medicines properly and for free.

Recently, Patrick Furtado had a bit of a dilemma. He had a mountain of pills left behind when his uncle died. His task was finding a way to get rid of them safely.

"We're talking a huge amount of pills here, probably a couple hundred prescription drugs," he recalled. "My aunt, who is his sister, recommended that we just take them and flush them down the toilet."

But, Furtado knew that flushing would drain all those chemicals into local waterways. Instead, he scanned the Yellow Pages for someone who could dispose of the drugs without harming the environment. He received a lot of suggestions but no good answers.

It all started with a call to a pharmacy.

"He recommended I just take them and wrap them up in a plastic bag or something, and throw them in the trash," Furtado said.

Furtado rejected that idea, figuring that the drugs would leak out of the bag and into a landfill. So, he tried a recycler. Then, he tried a local hospital. There were no takers. He was bounced around to several offices at the county health department. Finally, someone gave him instructions that just did not seem right.

"Just bring them to the front counter," he was told. "Ask for Vince and give him the drugs."

"I'm thinking to myself 'Who's Vince?'" Furtado said.

Finally, he contacted 7 on Your Side to find out what he should do.

7 On Your Side found the Household Hazardous Waste Recycling Center in Richmond, a place where people can pull up in their cars and leave all kinds of chemical waste including their unwanted pharmaceuticals for free.

"Every year, it's about 2,500 pounds or so, a little over a ton," says Nicole Forte with West Contra Costa Recycling.

Every Bay Area county has at least one facility that will recycle medicines for free. In Oakland, Pharmaca has been doing it for years. They have taken tons of pills that officials hope people will not flush down the toilet or dump in the trash.

"The majority of people think that's the best way to get rid of anything, is to flush it down the toilet," says Ej Shalaby. "Again, it's out of sight, out of mind for them."

Shalaby manages Wastewater Treatment in Contra Costa County. He says the treatment system cannot filter out drugs so the chemicals are reaching the bay.

Shalaby says, "It's starting to affect wildlife by changing some of the hormonal structures in wildlife."

"We don't want three-legged frogs in our environment," Forte says.

Furtado says he wishes he had known about this before.

"No one had a correct answer," he says. "Until I talked to you, I didn't know that I could take them to the local recycle center."

For a complete county-by-county list of places to dispose of unwanted medicines and used syringes for free, visit the CalRecycle website.


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