Bay Area Demands Pharmaceutical Take-Back

Pharmaceutical Take-Back poster
Supervisor Adrienne J. Tissier poses with Save The Bay’s pelican next to a poster highlighting pharmaceutical take-back programs in San Mateo County.

Unwanted and expired medications are often tossed in the trash or flushed down the toilet or sink. But did you know that sewage treatment plants are not designed to filter out all of the substances found in pharmaceuticals? That means that these drugs go untreated through wastewater treatment plants and end up flowing directly into the Bay. According to a study conducted by the USGS, over 80% of waterways tested in the United States show traces of pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceuticals found in waterways pose serious dangers for the aquatic environment and the overall health of the San Francisco Bay.  Although many of the effects of these chemicals remain unknown, researchers have documented endocrine disruption and reproductive problems in fish in close proximity to wastewater treatment plants.

Currently, there is no legislation in place at the state level requiring pharmaceutical companies to take-back unwanted or expired medications, so it is very difficult for people to properly dispose of their medication. The few pharmaceutical take-back programs that are in place in the Bay Area draw their funds from taxpayer money. Now that there is a growing concern about the effects of pharmaceuticals in waterways, there is a greater demand for responsible disposal and for the pharmaceutical industry to pay for these programs.

Big Pharma vs. Alameda County

Alameda is the first county in the country to start a mandatory drug take-back program. Other Bay Area counties are working to adopt similar ordinances, including San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, and San Mateo. The pharmaceutical industry has worked to challenge Alameda County’s Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance, claiming that it violates the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Clause “prevents states from taking actions that discriminate against or place a significant undue burden on interstate commerce.” A law violates the Dormant Commerce Clause if the burden on interstate commerce outweighs local benefits to public health.

Prior to appealing to the Supreme Court, the pharmaceutical industry appealed two lower level court decisions and lost both cases. The Supreme Court refused to hear the pharmaceutical industry’s case, indicating that drug take-back programs have the potential to provide meaningful benefits to the public and the environment that outweigh costs for drug companies.

This decision will allow other Bay Area counties to pursue similar legislation and will likely inspire other states to take action.  Drug take-back programs funded by the pharmaceutical companies themselves will allow for more responsible disposal of medication, preventing pharmaceuticals from entering our water ways, allowing for a healthier San Francisco Bay.

Click here to find locations throughout the Bay Area where you can safely dispose of unused medications.

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. 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.

Weekly Roundup October 25, 2013

Contra Costa Times 10/17/13
San Joaquin River dredging may benefit endangered Antioch butterflies
A flurry of activity just off this city’s shore this week may not only clear the way for Northern California commerce, but also could boost the population of a near-extinct native butterfly species nearby.
Workers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Oakland-based Vortex Marine Construction were dredging part of the San Joaquin River just east of Antioch’s downtown Thursday — annual maintenance done to clear the path for larger ships to bring cargo into the Central Valley.
Read more>>

weekly roundup

Media Matters 10/22/13
EPA Moves to Clarify Clean Water Act, Fox Cries “Power Grab”
Fox is accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of a “power grab” for proposing a rule to clarify the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. In fact, the new classification is based on sound science and intended to address years’ worth of confusion surrounding the proper protection of the nation’s waterways.
Newly-proposed guidelines would allow “greater consistency, certainty, and predictability nationwide by providing clarity in determining where the Clean Water Act (CWA) applies,” per the EPA, specifically by incorporating recent research on the extend to which small streams and wetlands connect to larger bodies of water downstream. That research, which is under review by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, found that small streams, even those that only flow at certain times, “are connected to and have important effects on downstream waters,” and that wetlands are similarly integrated, making them subject to CWA protection.
Read more>>

Alameda Sun 10/25/13
Estuary Cleanup in Full Swing
The Alameda Police Department (APD) is among 15 agencies involved in the multimillion dollar cleanup of the Oakland Estuary currently underway. Agencies that include the Coast Guard, the State Lands Commission and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission are using Francis Collins’ property at Clement Avenue and Oak Street to stage their operation.
The tug boats Respect and Captain Al, a pair of barges and a large amount of debris lay at the waterway’s bottom just off the property that Collins hopes to develop into the Boatworks housing project. A team from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) will soon raise all these hazards from the estuary’s bottom.
Read more>>

Contra Costa Times 10/24/13
Unwanted Pharmaceuticals Can be Dropped off this Weekend
Those looking to get rid of unwanted medication will have an opportunity from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, when National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day events will be held around the area.
Medication, whether prescription or over-the-counter drugs, has proliferated in modern society, and that creates a danger to humans and the environment.
The East Bay Municipal Utilities District notes in its latest customer newsletter that flushing expired or unwanted pills, capsules and syrups was once the recommended method of disposal.
But studies now show that this practice creates a pharmaceutical stew in the Bay because the substances cannot be handled by conventional wastewater treatment.
Read more>>