PORTLAND – Colleen Szymczuk grimaced as she opened up an old bottle of pills Saturday morning.

“That smells horrible,” she said.

Szymczuk was one of 130 University of New England pharmacology students, professors and volunteer pharmacists sifting through the piles of medications dropped off at the Portland campus and several other locations during the fourth National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. The program, which has been taking place every six months, is organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local police departments

In just four hours on Saturday, Mainers turned in thousands of pounds of prescription and over-the-counter medications at dozens of drop-off sites across the state. The program is designed to prevent medications from entering the environment and cut down on the abuse and theft of prescription drugs.

In 2011 Mainers turned in nearly 33,870 pounds of pills, ointments and other medicines, while nationally 995,185 pounds were collected. During the first take-back effort, Mainers turned in 7,820 pounds. The number of pounds has increased during each of the events.

Abuse of prescription painkillers resulted in more deaths in Maine than by those caused by automobile accidents in 2009. The state’s epidemic pharmaceutical abuse was chronicled in a weeklong special report by MaineToday Media last fall.

UNE pharmacology students have been using the take-back effort to research the use of prescription drugs in Maine. Volunteers cataloged each pill — the last time they counted 50,000 — in an effort to identify which medications are being over-prescribed or improperly used by patients and to improve patient outcomes.

Lauren Spada, the UNE student organizing the research, said drug-resistant bacteria can develop when patients do not complete their antibiotics dosages.

Spada said pharmacists do not always take the time to communicate why it is important to take the entire medication or to correctly dispose of unused medicine.

“We need to step out of our zone and take that time,” said Spada.

She said during the last take-back event, someone turned in a bottle prescribed in 1978, 10 years before she was born.

A steady stream of local residents dropped off bags and even boxes of medications.

Holding his 9-month-old son Providence, Oremus Butera of Portland said he heard about the event on the radio and decided to get rid of some old pain medications.

“They worried me, especially now with him moving around,” said Butera.

Art Wood of Portland turned in a box of medications that belonged to his late wife, a cancer patient.

“I am concerned about contaminated water,” said Wood.

Michael Wardrop, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency, said he won’t know the final tally from Saturday’s take-back later in the week. Meanwhile, the medications will be safely stored in lockdown until they are transported to a Haverhill, Mass., incinerator for disposal.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]