Don’t Want Mutant Fish in the Bay? Advocate for Tougher Drug Take-Back Programs in SF

Medication Pills Drug Take-back Programs Legislation Environment
Will San Francisco be the next county to pass sweeping drug take-back program legislation? Photo via Michael Chen on Flickr

As usual, Bay Area counties are ahead of the curve when it comes to making change. Back in 2012, Alameda County became the first in the nation to require pharmaceutical companies to pay for a drug take-back program, upping the ante for giant pharmaceutical companies to take responsibility for their products and raising awareness about the dangers of flushing unused medication into the Bay Area’s waterways.

It was a bold move, and now it looks like San Francisco County is eyeing similar legislation. Instead of taxpayers footing the bill, local Supervisor David Chiu recently began advocating for the funding of drug take-back programs to fall under the responsibility of pharmaceutical corporations. He told the San Francisco Chronicle this month that with this legislation, he seeks to prevent overdoses as well as to reduce contaminants in water – water that all eventually flows into our beloved Bay.

It turns out our wastewater treatment plants don’t have the technology to filter pharmaceutical chemicals ­ – they’re only designed to remove conventional pollutants such as solids and biodegradable materials. Yet for decades, drug companies and doctors told the public to flush unused and unwanted medications down the toilet. That sounds pretty gross in retrospect, but we all know hindsight is 20/20; recent studies have found traces of medications in surface water bodies across the country. The thought of seven-gill sharks and stingrays swimming around the Bay loaded with hormones, codeine and aspirin is pretty depressing, don’t you think?

You might be asking what all that medication does to aquatic life on a biological and physiological level. Scientists know for a fact that increased medications in surface water bodies have led to increased resistance to antibiotics, interference with growth and reproduction in sensitive organisms like fish and frogs – even at low levels of exposure. Effects of exposure can include off-kilter gender ratios (more females than males); the presence of both male and female reproductive organs on individual animals; plummeting birth rates; decreased fertility and growth; and lethargy and disorientation.

Let’s take a break from the icky details. Back in 2010, San Francisco County attempted to pass a law like Alameda County’s, but the plan buckled under industry pressure. The result was a slimmed-down, taxpayer-financed pilot program that consists of drop-off sites at nearly two dozen independent pharmacies and police stations. SFGate.com reports that the program has collected more than 37,000 pounds of medications over the last two years, and costs roughly $162,000 a year to operate – most of which is unreimbursed city staff time.

Fast forward to 2014, and San Francisco County is finally ready to take it a step further, inspired by Alameda County’s victory. If passed, Chiu’s law would establish drug drop-off sites at ALL retail and health care facilities that sell drugs. And, the cherry on top: the law would require drugmakers that make drugs sold in San Francisco to pay all administrative and operational costs of the program.

There are 7 million people living in the Bay Area. While not everyone is flushing medication down the toilet on the regular, our large population (which is booming, by the way), without any public awareness on the issue, still makes for a potentially huge amount of medication contaminants making their way into our waterways. That’s why successful legislation like this in San Francisco (which can lead to a domino effect around California, followed by statewide legislation – fingers crossed!) could be a boon to not only our drinking water supplies, but our streams, waterways, and the Bay – our crowned jewel.

In the meantime, check out our resource guide to Pharmaceutical Disposal Sites to responsibly discard your unwanted and unused medication.