Volunteers Michelle Danois, left, and Susan White sift through unwanted medications as part of the national Drug Take Back Day on Oct. 26 at the South Portland Police Station. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND — In the basement of city police headquarters on Anthoine Street, volunteers sorted through boxes of medications on Oct. 26 as part of a national effort to provide residents with a safe, convenient and responsible way to dispose of prescription drugs.

In light of recent climate change initiatives, particularly in South Portland, Officer David Stailing said a strong focus was put on how to properly dispose of medications to avoid environmental damage, as many people aren’t aware of how damaging medications can be.

National Drug Take Back Day, which takes place every April and October across the U.S., was first launched by the National Drug Enforcement Administration in 2010 in hopes of preventing abuse, misuse and theft. In the wake of vaping -related deaths and illnesses, the take-back day also allowed for people to drop off electronic vaping devices and cartridges this year as well.

The National Drug Take Back Day aims to educate people on how to properly dispose of medications, so they don’t end up in surface water such as lakes. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

Volunteer Susan White, a retired environmentalist, said small initiatives like these have a big impact overall. Both White and Michelle Danois, who worked across from each other Saturday, have been volunteering for the cause for almost 10 years.

“I grew up here, and as a kid, we’d pass by the water in Knightville and see trash everywhere,” Danois said. “As kids, we’d always go out with butterfly nets and collect the trash in boxes and bring it to our parents. They’d ask ‘why are you doing this?’ and it was because we wanted a clean environment … By participating in this event, I’m still doing my part.”

Dr. Robert Sanford, chairman of the Environmental Science and Policy Department at the University of Southern Maine, said flushing pills or rinsing them down the sink have never been good methods to dispose of unwanted medications. Most medications, he explained, are not removed by wastewater treatment plants or septic systems, and can make their way into surface water, such as rivers and lakes, and in drinking supplies.

“Any medication disposed of improperly can impact aquatic organisms and persist for quite a while in the environment, because not everything breaks down,” he said. “Some chemicals, like estrogen, can cause fish to switch genders. It’s pretty drastic what can happen if someone disposes of them improperly.”

Stailing, who monitored the event Saturday, said the city’s police department and many others in the U.S. accept unwanted medications any time of year. South Portland has a drop-off box in the lobby, he said, and people shouldn’t be afraid to bring in their unwanted medications for fear of repercussions.

“We don’t ask questions, we just want to dispose of them properly, and the drop box inside is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “On the take-back day, people don’t even have to go into the lobby. They drive up and drop off. We do this to stop people from flushing them down the toilets or placing it where little kids can grab it.”

Residents can drop off unwanted medications any time in the lobby of the South Portland Police Department on Anthoine Street, not just on drug take-back days. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

Stailing said only two vapes were received on Saturday in South Portland, and because officers don’t keep track of what is received, there is no way to tell whether the pens contained tetrahydrocannibinol, or THC, an active ingredient in cannabis.

As of Oct. 22, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1,600 vape-related lung injury cases have been reported, with at least 34 deaths confirmed. Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said the effort is a step in the right direction to protect students.

“We were excited to see they were taking vape cartridges. We thought that was sending a positive signal in South Portland,” he said in an interview Oct. 28. “There are times when medications have been mistakenly been used by kids that was stolen, and misused, and so it’s a public health issue and we’re supportive of the take-back efforts.”

Dana Baldwin, the city’s behavioral health liaison, said the drug take-back effort has always been known as a way to educate young adults of the dangers of misusing prescription drugs. Many teenagers, she explained, may be intrigued by what a medication can do to their mental state. If they have easy access to unwanted medications lying around the house, they may be tempted to try them, unaware of how it may negatively affect them.

“Any kind of misuse of prescriptions or medications can interrupt healthy brain development,” she said. “Some people believe a prescription medication is not as harmful as street drugs, but it can put young adults at risk for other risky behavior that could lead to addiction. This take-back day also acts as a means to educate, and inform both kids and young adults.”

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