From Green Right Now Reports

Two years ago, an AP investigation found that America’s medicine habit had a boomerang effect. Discarded and excreted medicines — heart and mood drugs, tranquilizers and hormone treatments — that had been flushed down the toilet were turning back up in drinking water. (Yes, that’s how our managed water cycle works.)

MedsThis invisible problem poses serious health risks. One person’s life-saving nitroglycerin might be another person’s life-threatening disease trigger. None of us want our neighbor’s meds, no matter how tiny the dose, in our morning coffee.

But while it is easy to see how the problem gets started: Who doesn’t have a medicine cabinet with at least one under-used or unopened prescription medicine that just wasn’t required or didn’t work? It’s more difficult to conjure a solution. How can these medicines be collected and where can they be safely retired?

Maine, the state with the oldest median-age population, and no doubt a treasure trove of packed medicine cabinets, has found one answer. It piloted a program in which residents can mail back unused meds to the state’s aging agency.

The pilot project began back in 2007 with a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under its Aging Initiative.

The state was motivated to try something new because of environmental concerns, but also because prescription drug abuse and related crime is a major problem, according to police authorities.

The program, called Safe Medicine Disposal for Maine, launched with an education effort first aimed at senior citizens in several counties; telling them about the program and supplying them with return mailers. It partnered with police and health departments, the state environmental department and regional agencies on aging. The University of Maine, Community Medical Foundation for Patient Safety, the National Council on Patient Information and Education and the Rite Aid Corporation all provided support and expertise.

Eventually, 150 pharmacies in all 16 of the state’s counties participated by distributing return envelopes.

Volunteer pharmacists and pharmacy students cataloged the returned meds, under police supervision, to track what the program was collecting. This group also sorted the collected drugs into hazardous and non-hazardous substances. About 17 percent of the collected drugs fell into the “controlled drug” categories. They included narcotic pain relievers, tranquilizers and sedatives (which you definitely don’t need in the morning coffee). These drugs, about 250 pounds of them, along with all the other drugs were destroyed using a “high heat incineration” method approved for this type of disposal.

The total take: 2,300 pounds of drugs were collected from 3,926 returned envelopes.

Surveys showed that these drugs were no longer needed because the person using them had either been told to stop taking the medicine or had switched to a different one (27.3 percent); had died (19.6 percent), felt better and no longer needed to meds (18 percent) or had an allergic or other negative reaction (11.9 percent).

The pilot program staff determined that without the program about 80 percent of these drugs would have been flushed down the toilet.

(The government agencies that organized and participated ii the project: The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and its Offices of Adult Mental Health Services and Substance Abuse, the Maine Benzodiazepine Study Group, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Postal Service, the Maine Department of Health, the Maine Office of the Attorney General, the U.S. District Attorney for Maine, and the University of Maine Center on Aging.)