October 2, 2011

Maine might compost unused drugs

Test could lead to cheap waste disposal

BY JOHN RICHARDSON Maine Sunday Telegram

Maine collects more unused medication per resident than any other state, keeping tons of powerful drugs out of the reach of children and out of sewers, waterways and drinking water supplies.

click image to enlarge

WORTH A TRY: From left, project pharmacist volunteers Bill Miller, Kerry Kenney and Milton Stein inventory returns in 2009 at an undisclosed location. A team of state officials is about to test a potentially simple and cheap alternative to disposal of much of the state’s unused drugs: Composting.

University of Maine Center on Aging photo

However, state environmental rules prevent disposal of much of the medical waste in Maine. So the pills and syrups have been trucked out of state to be incinerated at a specially approved facility, something that can be 100 times more expensive and use up a significant chunk of the funding devoted to collecting the drugs.

Now a team of state officials is about to test a potentially simple and cheap alternative: Composting.

They'll put a variety of unused drugs -- prescription and over-the-counter -- into standard bins, then monitor the chemical changes as the mixture composts, or cooks. If it works as hoped, the denatured waste might be used safely to cover landfills or for other purposes, and Maine and others states will have an inexpensive solution to a growing national problem.

"The implications of this study, if it works, are huge," said Ann Pistell of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The national search for a way to collect and dispose of unused medication will be one focus of a three-day conference that begins this afternoon in Portland.

The eighth annual International Symposium on Safe Medicine is expected to draw about 100 experts from around the country to discuss medication disposal and drug abuse.

"Better solutions are needed," said Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging, an organizer and sponsor of the conference. "We've got to stop flushing them. We've got to stop discarding them into landfills."

Everything from anti-depressants to pain relievers and synthetic hormones have been flushed routinely down toilets, both in homes and in long-term-care nursing facilities.

Traces of the drugs are measurable in streams and rivers around the country.

Unused prescription drugs sitting in medicine cabinets, especially opiate-based painkillers such as Vicodin and oxycodone, also are a major source of drugs abused by teens and adults. Maine has the nation's highest rate of residents in publicly supported treatment for prescription painkiller addiction, according to federal data.

Concerns about the environmental and public health threats led to what are considered to be the nation's most aggressive drug collection and disposal efforts.

Maine residents can now take unwanted drugs to periodic collection events -- one is planned for Oct. 29 at sites around the state -- and to police stations and county sheriff's offices equipped with secure drop boxes.

Local pharmacies also can provide special envelopes for customers who want to mail in their unwanted meds, although supplies of the mailers are short because funding has run out.

"I don't think any other state in the country can claim as good a track record as ours in ensuring the average citizen has a way to safely dispose of unused drugs," Kaye said. "We have the only approved model for mailback anywhere in the country, if not the world."

Maine also collected more drugs per resident than any other state during national drug collections last October and April, according to Michael Wardrop, a Portland-based agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency who spoke to a group of southern Maine police chiefs last week. Nearly 20,000 pounds of drugs, in total, were collected in the two events, he said.

Wardrop also told the police officials that Maine's environmental rules have complicated disposal efforts and required the DEA to take the medical waste to a Massachusetts trash incinerator.

The Massachusetts facility is not a licensed hazardous waste incinerator -- there are none in New England -- but it has a special waiver from that state to handle waste medication. It's not clear how much the DEA is spending on disposal in Massachusetts, but some drugs collected in Maine in the past have been trucked to a hazardous waste incinerator in Arkansas at a cost of about $4 a pound, or $8,000 a ton.

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