January 27, 2013

New rules could hurt Maine drug takeback programs

Federal and state proposals could erode health-care savings and pave the way for less ecologically sound disposal methods.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Lewiston Police Sgt. David St. Pierre and Officer Craig Johnson crate unused prescription drugs at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Portland office April 28, 2012, during National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/John Patriquin

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Unused prescription drugs collected during a 2008 Sagadahoc County drug disposal effort are sorted at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. A U.S. DEA proposal would ban authorities from gathering data on what drugs are being returned during drug takeback programs and in what quantities. Such data has been used to cut the cost of MaineCare by imposing 15-day limits on the initial prescriptions of often-wasted drugs.

Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Others expressed concern about the lack of data.

"Nobody seems to be able to cite any emission studies for pharmaceuticals (at municipal plants)," another DEP product stewardship expert, Ann Pistell, wrote colleagues in November 2011. "The science in which to base public policy seems alarmingly absent to me."

In a written statement to the Press Herald, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said, "EPA is not aware of any available emissions data on the efficacy of burning pharmaceuticals in a municipal waste combustor" because "it is impractical and not cost effective for an incinerator to ever burn a load consisting only of waste pharmaceuticals."

"The concern with pharmaceuticals is that even a small amount of some of the persistent agents don't completely combust, they can leak out, and they have very small thresholds where they can have an effect," said toxicologist Melinda Treadwell, provost of Keene State College in New Hampshire.

Because of the lack of data, the EPA recommends that takeback programs dispose of unwanted medications "in a permitted hazardous waste incinerator or cement kiln." As a fall-back position, it recommends that they be burned in municipal incinerators, as this is safer and cleaner than other alternatives: having people throw them in landfills with their trash or flush them down their toilets.

Currently, collected drugs are being burned at a municipal waste plant in Haverhill, Mass., under an environmental waiver negotiated by the federal DEA, according to Wardrop, the head agent in Portland.

If federal funding for takebacks ends, that option would likely evaporate, he said, potentially leaving state and local law enforcement with disposal costs of up to $5 a pound at an out-of-state hazardous waste facility.

Burning drugs at municipal waste plants would likely be much cheaper, Wardrop said, about $80 a ton, or 4 cents a pound.

Stevan Gressitt, founding director of the University of New England Institute for Pharmaceutical Safety, who sits on the drug task force, says the cost of inaction is even greater.

"Addiction is causing overdoses and pharmacy holdups and drug-driving events," he said. "I would propose you have far more dead people in the state of Maine as a direct result of the availability of these drugs than we would ever have from putting them in a incinerator."

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:



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