Unused medicine a toxic dilemma

Rebecca Runyon thought she had taken ample precaution.

The Granite Falls woman didn’t know how to properly dispose of her stepfather’s old unmarked medicines after he died. So she stored them in a wooden cabinet next to the fireplace.

“We put them away where people couldn’t find them,” she said. “Obviously, it didn’t work that way.”

In 2010, two months after graduating from Granite Falls High School, her son, Tylor Vaughan, discovered the prescription pills. He and two buddies decided to try them at a friend’s house.

All three became sick and needed medical care.

Vaughan apologized to his mom and told her he loved her as she drove him to the hospital.

He became increasingly ill as the time-release medicine worked its way through his body. The pills had been intended for treating gout.

Vaughan was transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. His organs began shutting down. To this day, Runyon is uncertain exactly what medicine her son took because it was so old the label had faded away.

“He tried to fight as hard as he could,” Runyon said. “It was just too late.”

He died three days later. He was 18.

“I keep trying to analyze it,” Runyon said. “It’s hard to analyze something you don’t understand.”

What Runyon does understand is there are thousands of people who are like her in wondering what they should do with medicines they no longer need. Now she’s supporting a bill before the state Senate that would create a drug take-back system to dispose of leftover and expired medicines. Senate Bill 5234 would create a pharmaceutical-industry-funded medicine return corporation. It would collect, transport and dispose of prescription drugs from homes at a cost of up to $2.5 million a year.

As it stands, police agencies in Snohomish County have locked boxes for drug take-backs, but the future of that program is uncertain.

“My concern is that folks think we have it handled,” said Jonelle Fenton-Wallace, who works in the environmental health department of the Snohomish Health District. “We operate the program under grant funding. We just don’t know how long it will keep going.”

Organizers say the take-back program keeps medications out of the waste stream and away from people, including teenagers, who might abuse them.

Cmdr. Pat Slack leads the Snohomish County Drug and Gang Task Force and is a strong supporter of the bill.

“The bottom line is this is common sense,” he said. “There is no silver bullet out there to stop drug abuse. We need to address as many contributing factors of it as we can. A medicine cabinet is one of the most vulnerable locations because most people do not keep their medications under lock and key.”

In 2008, about one in 10 high school sophomores said in a survey that they had used pain relievers to get high in the previous month, the health district reported. It also found that more people die from unintentional poisoning than in motor vehicle crashes in Snohomish County.

Between 2005 and 2007, there were 271 unintentional poisoning deaths in the county. Of those, 215 involved prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, officials said.

The bill has backing from law enforcement agencies as well as some environmental organizations, drug treatment centers and medical groups.

The pharmaceutical industry questions the need and the timing of the bill.

Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said federal guidelines allow unused prescriptions to be placed in a sealable plastic bag with kitty litter, sawdust or coffee grounds before being thrown in the trash.

He said Washington state lawmakers should wait for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to finish developing comprehensive regulations covering the collection of unused medicines before deciding what to do.

Supporters of the bill argue that key agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, recommend medicine take-back programs and suggest disposal of medicines in household trash only if a take-back program is not available.

Snohomish County prohibits the dumping of most medicines in the trash because they are considered hazardous waste.

Last year, the drug take-back program in Snohomish County yielded 4,530 pounds of medicines, up from about 3,100 pounds the year before.

Nationally nearly 500 tons of medication has been disposed of on designated take-back days during the past two years.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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