What to do with unused meds

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There is more and more talk in state legislatures of finding new ways to dispose of unused medications at healthcare facilities. This is an idea whose time has come.

The amount of drug waste that nursing homes and hospitals generate is unsettling. If a nursing home resident has a bad reaction to a drug, dies, or gets discharged, typically a whole 30-day supply bubble card is thrown away. That's a lot of pills. The Associated Press estimated in a 2009 investigation that at least 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals and contaminated packaging are generated in medical facilities each year.

The poor, unsuspecting victim of our unused medications is our water supply. Flushing drugs down the toilet contaminates our water, and, by extension, us. And throwing them in the trash isn't necessarily the answer as drugs in landfills still may leech into the groundwater.

Several states have proposed legislation to find new, more environmentally friendly ways to reuse or store the drugs. Some of the ideas have multiple benefits. State Sen. Lois Tochtrop (D) in Colorado recently proposed that nursing homes save drugs to be shipped to Haiti. What could be a better use of unused medication than that?

Another bill in Minnesota would prevent all healthcare facilities from flushing down pharmaceuticals. It and other states also are proposing that pharmaceutical companies pick up the expense for picking up drug waste from people's homes (not nursing homes).

There is some pushback from the pharmaceutical industry. Lobbyists argue that concentrations of pharmaceuticals found in water are extremely low, and are not known to harm humans. Most of what ends up in the water is medicine that people take and excrete, they said, not unwanted meds that are flushed away.

That could be true, but why take the risk? And here's a better reason to find new ways to dispose of unused drugs: If they could benefit people here and around the world, why let them go down the drain?

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McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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