The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is uniting with allies to tackle the growing issue of prescription pill contamination in water. As part of this new initiative, officials are promoting the use of drop boxes for unused medications, and debuting new boxes in Milwaukee.
This new effort comes in the wake of the Oct. 23 Imagine A Day Without Water campaign. The DNR joined elected officials, community leaders, activists and others nationwide to promote awareness of the issues affecting access to clean drinking water. A web page maintained by the DNR details the dangers of flushing medications down toilets or sinks, and includes instructions on ways to properly dispose of unwanted pills.
On Saturday, Oct. 26, 277 law enforcement agencies statewide also participated in Drug Take Back Day. “The opioid epidemic continues to plague our communities,” said Attorney General Josh Kaul. “By properly disposing of unused medications at drug drop boxes around the state, we can prevent diversion and addiction.”
Last week was also national Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Sen. Tammy Baldwin used the week of awareness to advocate for early childhood screenings for lead poisoning. Baldwin signed onto a letter with Senate colleagues to Seema Verma, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), emphasizing the organization’s role in addressing the health consequences of water contamination.
“As we enter National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week,” they wrote, “we write to receive an update on the steps CMS is taking to address demonstrated gaps in data pertaining to blood lead level screenings and urge CMS to renew its commitment to ensuring appropriate lead screening for children at risk of lead exposure.”
As traces of drugs like cocaine and prescription pills turn up in fish, testing for water quality on all fronts is moving to the forefront of public consciousness.
Michelle Jaskulski, senior director of faith and family programs for Addiction Policy Forum (APF), stresses that unused medications are an easily overlooked hazard. “Old prescriptions left unsecured in the home can often be an easy source for someone thinking about abusing prescription medications and can pose dangers to pets or children who may accidentally ingest them,” she told Wisconsin Examiner.
APF is part of Take Back My Meds MKE, a coalition of advocacy groups and health experts pressing for proper drug disposal. The organization’s website states, “70% of opioid addictions start at home—very often from unused medicine that is left in medicine cabinets.” It also mentions that “waste treatment systems are not designed to break down medicine.”
It’s an issue the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is well acquainted with. In 2016, MMSD participated in a joint drug mail-back program with the city of Cudahy, CVS Pharmacy, the Department Of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Bank, and United States Postal Service (USPS). Two years before, MMSD coordinated with the Milwaukee Police Department, DEA, and Waukesha County in disposing of seven tons of collected medications. MMSD is also a partnered organization within Take Back My Meds MKE.
“Throwing old pills in the trash is often not the safest way to dispose of old medications and flushing may contaminate the water supply,” explains Jaskulski, who supports public disposal bins. “Pharmacies that provide this valuable customer service help to build healthier communities by taking unused and unwanted pills out of circulation and create additional opportunities to interact with patients which can lead to improved health outcomes.”
Beyond water contamination, improper disposal of prescription pills has other unintended consequences. Jaskulski points to reports of teenagers who collect random unused medications in bowls to hold so-called pharm or “skittle” parties. Jaskulski says public access to drug disposal bins could help starve out the pharm party trend. “Granted there are risks associated with such bins,” says Jaskulski, “I believe if properly used, monitored, and emptied on a regular basis by, say, a group such as ours, this could help.”
DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole praised the attention officials have dedicated to the state’s water-quality issues. “Thousands of people across Wisconsin worry about having access to clean, safe drinking water,” said Cole. “That’s a problem we must solve quickly. Gov. Evers declared this the Year of Clean Drinking Water and has directed us to move quickly and proactively to implement clean water initiatives.”
Through investments in refurbished infrastructure, the Cole says he hopes “none of us will ever have to experience a day without water.”