Drugs that collect in medicine cabinets are damaging public health and tainting our environment. We need a better way to dispose of them.

A proposal before the Cook County Board to require pharmaceutical companies to play a bigger role in the proper disposal of their products would be a significant step forward. On Thursday, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District went on record in favor of the concept, which is patterned after similar programs set up by counties in California and Washington state. The County Board should follow that recommendation and enact the ordinance when it comes up for a vote next week.

This week, the New York Times reported the nation is facing “one of the worst public health crises” in decades as huge numbers of people overdose on prescription drugs, including opiates.

EDITORIAL

One source of those overdoses is leftover painkillers. A 2009 report by a Washington state consortium of government, businesses and nonprofits estimated 10 to 33 percent of prescribed medicines are not consumed. That’s a public health disaster waiting to happen. Some of those unused drugs are finding their way into the hands of people addicted to prescription medications.

Even if people quickly dispose of drugs they don’t need, they often go about it the wrong way, either because they don’t know better or because there are no convenient options. Too often, they just toss the drugs into the garbage or flush them down the toilet. Either way, the medicines wind up in the environment, causing ecological havoc. A 2009 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago found 59 percent of Cook County respondents threw their unused medications in the garbage and 31.3 percent flushed them down toilets or sinks.

Researchers are finding signs that hormones and pharmaceutical compounds released into waterways are making fish act sluggishly, eat less and, in the case of male fish, grow female organs. And, yes, it’s happening in Chicago area waterways. When National Geographic wanted to illustrate the array of medicine chest chemicals that get into fish, the magazine profiled fish pulled from Chicago’s North Shore Channel.

And that’s just the aquatic life. No one knows what the effects are on humans, but when we drink Lake Michigan water, we drink whatever pharmaceutical traces get into it. Even the most advanced water treatment plants can’t remove those traces. We’d be better off if all those drugs were properly disposed of before they get into the environment.

Several local efforts already are in place to help people safely dispose of these medicines. Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart operates a network of drop-off points. Some townships and other local governments do the same. Walgreen’s has received approval to install year-round medication disposal kiosks at some of its locations. Twice a year, there’s been a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

Despite those efforts, we still have “collection deserts,” where no drop-off location is handy. Even if there is a drop-off close by, the hours may be so restricted few people use it. The MWRD says there are just 66 permanent drop-off sites serving the entire county.

That’s where the Cook County ordinance would step in. The big drug companies would be required to help ensure there’s a sustainably financed network of safe, secure and easy-to-get-to collection sites that covers the entire county. Sheriff Dart would play a lead role in setting up and running the program. The drug companies also would be required to publicize the plan so everyone knows they should use it.

Setting up such a network and promoting it wouldn’t be free. But supporters say it would certainly cost less than a penny per prescription. The ordinance would prohibit drug companies from directly adding a new fee to prescriptions to cover the cost.

Asking companies to be good stewards of their products is becoming more common. Manufacturers of tires, batteries, electronics, paint and some other products have become more involved in keeping their products from becoming environmental hazards after their useful lives. These companies are accepting responsibility for a cost of doing business that was previously picked up by society.

Drug companies should be willing to do so, too.
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