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.