In an effort to reduce prescription drug abuse and better the environment, the Drug Enforcement Agency and college campuses nationwide band together to collect unwanted and unused pills.
In the basement of the Memorial Union on Oregon State University’s campus, students from the College of Pharmacy are busily sorting what look like colorful little candies. Their crisp, white lab coats and the matching white walls create an ambience similar to a hospital waiting lobby, or a large doctor’s office. The click-click-clickity-click of hundreds of tiny pellets dropping into plastic containers fills the room as they busily count and sort the contents of dozens of plastic medication bottles piled on the tables between them.
It is college football game day, and hundreds of Beavers dressed in orange and black garb are braving the chilly November morning on their way to watch their team battle the Washington State University Cougars at Reser Stadium. But for the OSU College of Pharmacy students, it is also Safe Rx Day. The Save a Friend, Eliminate Rx event is focused on addressing a more serious concern than a regional football rivalry.
“I guess you can call me the finder of Safe Rx,” says Evan Romrell, a tall, clean-cut fourth-year student at the OSU College of Pharmacy.
He was given the honor of organizing the Safe Rx in August, when OSU’s Counseling and Psychological Services Department contacted the College of Pharmacy about the idea of organizing an event to promote suicide prevention on campus. Romrell explains that the dozen-plus people gathered in the basement accepting hundreds of unused medicines and pills from community members are doing so to help in four focused areas: drug abuse, environmental, inventory, and suicide prevention.
“In this event in particular, we’re doing an inventory by looking at what types of meds people are using,” says Romrell. “As health care professionals, there are things we can find out that can help us do our jobs as providers. This will allow us to see how we can improve the health care system.”
Safe Rx is a mini but powerful event modeled after the national Prescription Drug Take-Back campaign organized by the Drug Enforcement Agency a couple months prior. The results of the DEA’s campaign brought national attention to the public hazards of prescription drug abuse, which is what Safe Rx is attempting to do on a local level in the Corvallis community.
The DEA takes back
Just as the first leaves of autumn were turning vibrant orange across the country, the DEA made an aggressive decision in favor of community health.
In a dramatic effort to fight prescription drug abuse, the first national Drug Take-Back campaign happened on Saturday, September 25. The event, organized by the DEA, gave Americans the opportunity to anonymously drop off expired, unused, or unwanted medicines at 4,094 take-back sites temporarily set up in every state.
By collecting the undesired pills, the DEA hopes to decrease accessibility and distribution of prescription drugs for non-medicinal use.
Take-Back day was an outstanding success: An unbelievable 242,000 pounds of unwanted prescription drugs were removed from the Nation’s public domain. The volunteer efforts and participation of the 2,992 local and state law enforcement agencies at the collection sites were the life force behind the campaign’s impressive success.
The state of Oregon alone collected 6,786 pounds of meds from its forty-three collection sites. “The unwanted prescriptions and pills were burned at local incinerators,” says Jodi Underwood, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Seattle.
Pill Palooza: America’s new drug reality
The soaring trend of pills for recreational use is disturbing. Every day, around seven thousand Americans age twelve and older use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons for the first time, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Prescription medication abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the country.
“Drug abuse is not uncommon for kids who can seek out medications from their parents,” says Bill Boyce, who has served as the Director of Pharmacy at OSU since 1998. His orange polo shirt—adorned with an OSU Beaver logo—is a bright spot of color against the surrounding white environment. “There’s been a big push nationally to prevent [prescription drug abuse].”
Drug abuse by prescriptions usually starts early, says Romrell. “About 14 percent of high school students have taken a medication that isn’t their own. The majority that are abusing get them from their families because the meds are just lying around.”
Larry Weinerman, Program Coordinator at the Chrysalis Drug and Alcohol Treatment Program in Eugene agrees. “The cool drugs now are pills. Prescription drugs are the new drugs of abuse that are spreading out of control. There are so many kids as the University of Oregon who use prescription drugs because they want to study or party.”
Back in Corvallis, a woman wearing a colorful knitted cap and a heavy weather jacket enters the basement and approaches a table of three students in the front of the room. Under one arm, the woman cradles a biker’s helmet. In the other, is a large Ziploc bag filled with small prescription bottles and boxes of half-used pills.
She places it on the table in front of the students. They thank her and hand the Ziploc to their busy classmates seated behind them, who are sorting similar contents from dozens of other bottles and bags.
The woman’s donation will be among the many pounds of other drugs that will go through the process of sorting, documentation, and ultimately, incineration when the day ends and Oregon State Police collect the pills.
Drugs in U.S. water supplies
Twenty-two-year old student Quan Tran uses a flat, silver pharmaceutical tool to count white Oxycodone tablets on a vibrant, teal sorting tray. “The danger of unwanted pills is that it’s not good to take expired medication,” he says as he glances over his thin-framed glasses. “They’re ineffective, and they might hurt you.”
Donna Belle, a pharmacist for Apex Pharmacy in Portland, echoes that concern, saying expired meds have the potential to become toxic.
In 2008, the Associated Press released a study of U.S. water supplies after a five-month investigation. The study announced there were a shocking variety of prescription, antibiotic, and other types of drugs in the water supply of forty-one million Americans in twenty-five major cities across the U.S., including New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
“The fact that the drugs are detectable in the water is a public concern. Right now there are no solid regulations in place,” says Adam of the Safe Drinking Water Act hotline.
Many people who don’t know what to do with unwanted prescriptions flush the pills down the toilet, where they leak into the water supply, or they throw them away, where the medications deteriorate in a landfill.
“When we flush our drugs down the toilet, it can affect all of us,” says Peg Jennette, Program Services Coordinator for Lane County Health and Human Services. “I have two young grandchildren, and I don’t want [the drugs] affecting their development.”
Romrell agrees, saying the environmental impacts of prescriptions are severe because there are now “a ton of toxicity studies showing there are drugs in the rivers.”
Corvallis Sustainability Coalition volunteer, Annette Mills, who dropped off her medications at the event, advocates for a healthy environment. “My husband and I recently moved from one place to another, and we found a bag of expired meds,” she says in reference to her donated Ziploc bag of undesired prescriptions. “We are very atypical” she says with a laugh, “we try to recycle and reuse everything.”
‘Atypical’ is a fitting description for this cheerful, middle-aged woman. Mills has eighteen years of serving as an environmental program specialist and a recycling coordinator in the Washington D.C. area.
She is as articulate and educated on the harms of prescription drug abuse as one would expect of someone with her admirable volunteer experience. “This [Safe Rx] event is educational as well as practical for people. It gives us an opportunity to move one step closer to protecting our life support system. If we do not protect the air, the water, the soil; everything else doesn’t matter,” says Mills.
“It’s interesting to me that the number one thing people care about are jobs and the economy. We need to take care of basics first; and what’s more important and basic than water?”
Evaluating, educating, and eliminating prescription drug abuse in the local community
Rakki Hanthorn, twenty-three, is sorting marmalade-colored Ibuprofen pills. The first-year OSU College of Pharmacy Student pauses every few moments to briefly write notes on a pad of paper. She puts her pen down and returns to counting the small tablets on the sorting tray in front of her.
Hanthorn is working on the inventory part of the Safe Rx event. “We first separate the prescriptions. We write down its generic name, the dosage strength, and how many pills are left in the bottle,” she explains. “Then we put the drugs in a box for the Oregon State Police to later incinerate.”
She completes her task with one of the prescription bottles and drops it into a white cardboard box next to her chair. There is a small thud and a brief rattling of pills as the plastic lands on the growing pile of documented medicines accumulating in the box’s cavity.
Towards the back of the room sit other white cardboard boxes, all lined with clear plastic bags. A peek into the containers reveals more medicine boxes and labeled prescription bottles, an accumulated collage of various pharmaceutical unwanteds in differing shapes and quantities. There are even a few bottles of liquid medicines.
The growing collection in the Memorial Union’s basement is a small and eerie reminder of prescription drug hazards that blanket the entire nation.
Disposing is caring: Proper pill scrapping makes for healthier communities
Apex Pharmacy in Portland is one of nearly eight hundred pharmacies in forty states that participate in a Dispose my Meds program. The National Community Pharmacists Association and Sharps Compliance Inc. began the program during Earth Week (April 17-24) with the same goal as the DEA’s campaign: Properly remove and dispose of unwanted drugs to prevent further problems for the public. Through the program, community members can drop off undesired meds at any of the participating pharmacies, regardless of whether or not they are clients at that location.
Although Apex has only been offering the free service for about two months, Donna Belle says many have already taken advantage of the program—most of them members of the general Portland community.
“[Before the program started] we’d had so many people inquire about disposal of meds. Most metro facilities now have such programs in place,” says Belle. She also advises that it is a good practice for adults to go through their medications every six months to one year and dispose of any unwanted or unused pills. Drop-off sites across the U.S. are easy to locate through the National Community Pharmacists Association’s web site.
However, solid legislation is still one critical tool missing in the fight against prescription drug problems. “We’re working on legislation and laws to currently set up more sites for prescription disposal because such laws currently do not exist,” says OSU’s Bill Boyce.
This is why many view take-back campaigns as powerful tools in improving the general health of communities through education and prevention. “Things like this minimize public health costs. They cut down the costs of public safety, hospitalization, and medical treatments,” says Jennette, whose work involves supporting addiction treatment programs in Lane County.
Prevention through education, she adds, is key to promoting stabilized communities.
While hundreds of their Corvallis neighbors excitedly make their way to Reser Stadium for the Beaver-Cougar showdown, Evan Romrell and Bill Boyce are satisfied with an excitement of their own as they observe the gathering of pharmacy students and sorted medicines in the Memorial Union’s basement. “Our event is going really well today!” says Boyce happily. “This is game day and I didn’t expect the turnout we’ve had! That tells me this is something that’s needed.”
Annette Mills agrees. “This [Safe Rx] event is great because it increases education for the public. Even if people didn’t donate drugs today, the harms of prescription abuse are still implanted in their brains.”