Alameda County takes on drug companies over medication disposal

Alameda County is poised to make drug companies pay for the safe collection and disposal of residents' unused medications. 

The measure would apply to prescription drugs like penicillin as well as tightly controlled substances like OxyContin. 

Supporters say the ordinance would help prevent overdoses and accidental poisonings and reduce water pollution – claims the pharmaceutical industry insists are not true. 

Public agencies currently pay for 25 drug disposal sites in the county.  The ordinance would require drug manufacturers and producers to pay for the disposal of their products or face fines of up to $1,000 a day. 

“The county should not be responsible for continuing to bear the financial burden alone,” said Nate Miley, president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and sponsor of the ordinance. 

The measure also requires drug manufacturers to fund any efforts by Alameda County law enforcement agencies to collect controlled substances. Federal law requires that officers be present when such drugs, like Adderall, are returned. 

The ordinance is designed to make it easier for residents to get rid of their unwanted prescription medications. But it does not stipulate where or how drugs would be collected, for instance, whether there would be collection bins at hospitals or pharmacies, or if residents would have to return their unused medications through the mail. 

“If they can create drugs that save our lives, I’m confident they can figure out ways to get pills back,” said Heidi Sanborn, the executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, an organization that promotes sustainability through better product design. 

On July 24, supervisors will cast their final votes on the Alameda County Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance. During an initial vote last Tuesday, they approved the ordinance unanimously. 

At the meeting, the measure's backers dominated the public comment period. They stressed the environmental and public health benefits of the proposed ordinance. 

“Wastewater plants are major pathways of pharmaceuticals into the environment,” said Melody LaBella, pollution prevention program coordinator at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District. 

Much of that pollution comes through humans excreting the drugs after ingesting them. Some of it comes from unused medications that are flushed down the toilet. Wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove the drugs. 

“Unwanted pharmaceuticals are the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” said LaBella. 

A San Ramon mother told supervisors about her son's death from an accidental overdose. 

“I never in my wildest dreams would have dreamed that our family would have been embroiled in something like this,” said April Rovero, who founded the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, after her 21-year-old son, Joey, died in 2009.

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