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A chance to safely clean out medicine cabinets

DEA National Pharmaceutical Take-Back Day was Saturday, with people taking advantage of the free, no-questions-asked national drug-disposal effort.

DEA National Pharmaceutical Take-Back Day was Saturday, with people taking advantage of the free, no-questions-asked national drug-disposal effort.

Antibiotics, codeine pain pills and anti-depressants — stuffed into shopping bags, purses and pockets, they were carried into the Seattle Police Department's South Precinct office Saturday.

"I've always wondered how to get rid of them," said Bill Eng, 89, a retired Boeing machinist who brought a bag full of expired and unwanted prescription pills to the station, taking advantage of the DEA National Pharmaceutical Take-Back Day, a free, no-questions-asked national drug-disposal effort.

The drugs weren't doing him any good, Eng said, and he worried about his grandchildren getting into them.

Once, he took some unused drugs back to his primary-care doctor. His doctor accepted them, he said, "but he didn't know what to do with them."

Those who brought drugs to the South Precinct office said they knew they weren't supposed to flush their drugs down the toilet. "It pollutes the environment — not a good thing," Eng said. Like others, he knew that prescription drugs can poison fish.

Dick Abad, 66, from Beacon Hill, said he was bringing in some pills that were too strong. Because he'd used mail order, he had three months' worth of useless drugs. With five grandchildren, he didn't want them around the house, he said.

Saturday's four-hour event was the third take-back day, which works through partnerships with local police agencies. The last one, in April, collected about 9,000 pounds of drugs across the state. In 2009, 28 sheriffs' offices in Snohomish County alone collected 3,000 pounds, said Margaret Shield of the hazardous waste management program in King County. "They're not really heavy things — not like a toaster or a TV, so 3,000 pounds is a lot!" Shield said.

The drugs taken in by police will be collected by the DEA and incinerated, said Douglas James, DEA Seattle division assistant special agent in charge. "We're talking about a significant amount of drugs no longer able to be abused or thrown out and end up in the water supply."  

Shield, like many who work on this issue, wants it to become easier for people to dispose of drugs.  

They're dangerous to have around, say police, who too frequently get involved with cases like one last year in Bremerton, where a bunch of pills pilfered from someone's medicine cabinet sent nine school kids to the hospital. 

Prescription drugs, not illegal drugs, are now involved in most overdose deaths in Washington, researchers say. According to a statewide Take Back Your Meds coalition, a group of law-enforcement agencies, health organizations, drugstores, environmental groups and local governments, the state spends nearly $32 million per year on hospitalization, emergency care and treatment of children accidentally poisoned and overdosed.  

But it's not always easy to dispose of pills.

Putting them in the garbage isn't a good idea, says Shield, because "garbage juice" leaks out of landfills. Treating doesn't change the chemicals, she says, which then go into Puget Sound.

Some pharmacies will take back pills, but currently, controlled substances such as pain pills can only be accepted by police — and many agencies say they can't afford the program.

The DEA program, which began in 2009, will end as soon as a new federal law broadening the options for disposal goes into effect. The rules are expected sometime in the spring of 2012; until then, the DEA will hold take-back events every six months, said James.

The Take Back Your Meds coalition is working to pass a statewide secure medicine return bill that would require pharmaceutical companies to pay for disposal.

Last year, lawmakers considered a bill to do that, proposed by Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle) and defeated after pharmaceutical-industry opposition, Kline said. Shield said her group will try again.

"What we're trying to create here in Washington I think could be a model for the whole country."

 Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or

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