Drug take-back, disposal program proposed for pharmaceutical companies

EVERETT — The Snohomish Health District could require pharmaceutical companies to pay for the safe disposal of consumers’ unused medications beginning next year.

A countywide take-back program has existed since 2010, disposing of 34,000 pounds of unwanted medications. But it’s limited, only capturing a fraction of what’s brought into homes.

“We’re talking tens of thousands of pounds of this stuff every year,” said Snohomish County Council member Brian Sullivan, who also serves on the health district board.

An estimated 9.7 million prescriptions were filled in Snohomish County in 2014 and there were some 13 million over-the-counter medication purchases, according to the health district.

About a third of the medications sold to the public go unused. People often flush them down the toilet or toss them into the garbage. “The problem is they leak into Puget Sound and it creates an unhealthy environment,” Sullivan said.

Local pharmacies with disposal bins don’t accept powerful medications, such as painkillers. Narcotic pain pills and stimulants such as Ritalin can be dropped off at 26 locations, such as Snohomish County Sheriff’s offices and local police stations, but typically only during business hours Monday through Friday.

“The real challenge is how to make it convenient to get rid of these unused drugs,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Leftover prescriptions can provide easy access to powerful medications that can lead to accidental poisonings and deaths, Goldbaum said.

Nearly a third of poisonings and deaths in Washington were caused by victims taking someone else’s prescription medications, according to the health district.

The problem isn’t just with prescribed medications. Over-the-counter medicines, such as antihistamines, ibuprofen and Tylenol are among the top ten causes of poisonings in Washington homes, especially for children, according to the Washington Poison Center.

The health district’s goal is to have drop boxes in every city with a pharmacy and an additional drop box for every 30,000 people in cities and unincorporated areas. On Tuesday, the health district board can either decide the idea needs more time for consideration or schedule dates for public comment, which could begin later this month.

If approved, Snohomish County would join a handful of counties that have adopted or are considering similar drug take-back plans. The closest program, in King County, is expected to launch in mid-June, the first such program in the state. The goal is to have 125 collection sites by year’s end, said Taylor Watson, a manager for the secure medicine return program at Public Health — Seattle &King County. The cost to consumers is estimated at 1-to-2 cents per prescription, Watson said.

The drug take-back program being considered by the Snohomish Health District would be similar to the state’s electronics waste recycling program. “You pay a portion of the disposal fee in the purchase price and then the manufacturers are responsible for getting an organization to collect it,” said health district spokeswoman Heather Thomas.

Final action on the proposal isn’t expected until at least June. Pharmaceutical companies would have six months to submit disposal plans for review by the health district. The ordinance would go into effect three months after a disposal plan is approved, Thomas said.

The current program is run in collaboration with the Snohomish County Drug and Gang Task Force. A health district employee is deputized by the county to pick up the medications from each disposal bin. They’re taken to an approved incineration facility in Spokane or Oregon, Thomas said. Those trips are made two to three times a year.

“We have to collect it and keep it secure until we make those trips,” Thomas said. “It becomes a storage issue.” The program costs the health district about $80,000 a year, she said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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