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WA Struggles with Safe Drug Disposal

April 27, 2011

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Cleaning out the medicine cabinet this week could improve your family's health and safety as well as the environment - but only if you get rid of unused or expired drugs safely.

To observe National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on Saturday, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration will set up locations around the country for people to drop off their drugs - no questions asked. The drop-offs help keep the drugs out of children's hands, and also out of water and sewer systems.

Washington groups for three years have pushed for a longer-term solution: secure medicine-return sites in every county and major city. However, Elizabeth Davis, who chairs the League of Women Voters' Natural Resources Committee, says the bill died in the Legislature again this year.

"I think it's primarily because the pharmaceutical industry made an all-out and very, very strong effort to defeat it - and so far, in the three sessions, they've been successful. They had lobbyists in Olympia on this bill in amazing numbers."

The bill asks pharmaceutical companies to pay for the safe-return sites, but Davis says they objected to the cost, an estimated 2 cents per prescription.

Safer disposal of medicines has been a priority for the League of Women Voters, Davis says. Flushing pills down the toilet is bad for the environment, she says, but keeping them makes it all too easy for them to end up in the wrong hands - with possibly tragic results.

"Drug overdoses have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the state. Another fact is that 12 percent of state teenagers - one of the highest rates in the nation - use prescription pain meds to get high. Most of those come from family or friends."

Some pharmacies in Washington, including Group Health and Bartell's locations, take back some medications, although voluntary programs are not allowed to accept controlled substances. That can be confusing, Davis says. Some law-enforcement agencies also hold take-back events.

Take-back sites in Washington are listed online at

The Secure Medicine Return bills, SSB 5234 and HB 1370, are to be reintroduced in 2012.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA