Where Should the Unused Meds Go?

"The need is endless in the developing world. One of the largest things they ask for is medications, and it's the hardest to ship," said George Roberge, vice president of operations at Project Cure.

Of course not all medicines can be donated, even from nursing homes where packaging would make it easier to safely keep medicine. Roberge noted that Project Cure can't accept open packaging, liquids, expired medicine, narcotics or even medicine that's is not expired but that stayed at a nursing home longer than a year.

But Tochtrop and Roby, who testified before the state legislature in support of the Colorado bill, think every little bit will help.

The medicines that are thrown away, "are going to our landfills then those medications will leach into our ground water eventually," said Tochtrop.

But across the country in Maine, a measure meant to reduce medical waste is shaping into a bit of a public debate about the dangers in landfills.

What About the Take Back Approach?

Often called "take back" programs, state legislators in Maine, Minnesota and Washington are proposing, the medicines from homes (not nursing homes) should be the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies. Rather than encouraging citizens to flush unused medications or throw them away, the waste could be picked up along with other hazardous waste such as mercury, and disposed of at the pharmaceutical companies' expense.

The Pharmaceutical companies are resisting this kind of legislation. "We know that it [unused medicine] does not leech from landfills," said Marjorie Powell, senior assistant general counsel for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, PhRMA.

PhRMA has come out in opposition to many of the bills that require pharmaceutical companies be responsible for the disposal of unused medications. However, Powell said that PhRMA began looking into the fate of unused medication years ago.

"When PhRMA learned that there were trace amounts of compounds in [water] we were approached by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," said Powell. "They said 'why are these there?', and we said we think it's because people have a habit of flushing unused medicine down the toilet."

But, Powell argued rather than having medicine shipped to the pharmaceutical companies for disposal, more public education on how to properly throw away medication would solve environmental concerns.

"We think they (take back programs) cause more environmental harm than they solve, we think they're unnecessary," Powell said of the bills.

However, Scott Cassel, executive director at the Product Stewardship Institute, disagreed with Powell's assertion that dissolved medicine would not leech out of landfills. He also questioned whether having pharmaceutical companies dispose of the medication would be a challenge, since the industry already incinerates leftover medication from pharmacies in private take back programs.

What Really Happens To Unused Medicine?

"Putting it in the trash, in the landfills doesn't mean that it won't get in the water," said Cassel.

The EPA is unsure and has funded a plethora of studies to track pharmaceuticals contamination from hospitals, from farms, and from human waste.

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