The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has inspired hundreds of law enforcement officers around the nation to collect unused prescription drugs tomorrow as part of a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day . While the intention is laudable-stopping drugs from ending up in the hands of kids or addicts or dumped into the nation’s water supply-a once-a-year event to cure a multimillion-dollar, ongoing problem isn’t sufficient, according to the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI). “The answer isn’t solely a once-a-year collection event,” said Scott Cassel, PSI’s chief executive officer and founder. “While we applaud the DEA’s commitment to get these drugs out of medicine cabinets and prevent them from entering the water supply, localities need long-term solutions to the drug disposal problem. And that requires drug manufacturers to take responsibility.”

Currently, more than $1 billion worth of leftover drugs are thrown in the trash, flushed down the toilet, or consigned to medicine cabinets each year. When flushed or tossed, over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs can contaminate the nation’s waterways, threatening humans and aquatic life. Most wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. are not designed to filter out pharmaceutical compounds, so trace levels of prescription drugs are often detected in water supplies. The other looming danger is that these unused drugs get into the wrong hands. Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the U.S. Of those who misuse prescription drugs, over half report that they took pills that were actually prescribed to a friend or family member. Drug overdoses are so prevalent they have become the leading cause of injury deaths in 37 states. Along with addiction and overdoses, emergency rooms also too often see cases of young children poisoned when they get their hands on improperly stored or discarded medicines. “People need access to safe collection programs all year round,” Cassel said. “Local governments can’t provide consistent collection without sufficient funding. We need a solution that provides consumers a safe and convenient disposal option every day of the year, and that responsibility should fall on drug makers.”

To address this problem, six counties on the West Coast have passed local ordinances, based on extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, to develop a long-term solution to the drug disposal problem. EPR laws compel manufacturers to devise and fund methods for managing goods they produce at the end of the products’ lifecycle. This concept has been applied to many goods, such as mercury containing devices, electronics, paint, mattresses, and packaging. The six counties — five in California (Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin) and one in Washington (King) — enacted laws that place the financial burden for collecting and properly disposing of prescription drugs on the drug makers. The drug manufacturers selling pharmaceuticals in these counties are required to fund the collection infrastructure, transportation, disposal, and agency administrative costs.

“The San Francisco ordinance will allow residents to drop their leftover medications in secure boxes located in pharmacies throughout the city,” noted Jen Jackson, who oversees the program for the City and County’s Department of the Environment. “Because our program requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop and fund the program, the residents of San Francisco will be able to depend on having a convenient and ongoing drug disposal option, at little to no cost to either the user or the taxpayer.”

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) is an active proponent of extended producer responsibility legislation for pharmaceuticals because of the potential environmental and human health impacts of improper disposal. For instance, the accumulation of antibiotic contaminants can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a recognized emerging threat. Pharmaceuticals have also been shown to negatively affect and mutate fish and other wildlife. “Wastewater treatment facilities were not designed to remove pharmaceuticals, and trace amounts of drugs may pass through treatment facilities into our nation’s waters,” said Cynthia Finley, NACWA’s director of regulatory affairs. “Take-back programs are one of the most effective ways to reduce the improper disposal of pharmaceuticals into the wastewater system.”

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