DEP Tests

DEP Tests Show Prescription Drugs Leaching From Landfills

01/14/2010 05:50 PM ET

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection says it now has enough evidence to prove that unwanted prescription drugs being tossed into local landfills pose a threat to surface and groundwater supplies around the state. New test results of leachate at three Maine landfills show high concentrations of a wide range of pharmaceuticals. And the findings are likely to boost support for a bill to require drug companies to collect and dispose of unused medication.

“Prove it.” That’s what Mark Hyland of the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management says drug makers asked him to do. For a long time they had argued that if unused medication shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet because of the risk to ground and surface water, then the best option was to throw it out with the trash until someone could show them evidence that that also posed a threat.

But now Hyland says he can prove that prescription drugs are showing up in water that collects at three Maine landfills: in Augusta, Brunswick and Bath. “And what we found was that the landfill leachate includes things like antidepressants, antibiotics, steroids, hormones, heart and asthma medications and a lot of pain medications, kind of the usual group of pharmaceuticals that you would see anywhere,” Hyland says.

Leachate, the rainwater that percolates through the landfill and collects at the bottom, typically flows to a wastewater treatment plant. But unlike human waste that can be treated, pharmaceuticals cannot. And this contaminated water negatively affects aquatic organisms, fish and other wildlife.

Hyland says the wide-ranging spectrum of medication found in the leachate and some of the high concentrations were surprising.

“There hasn’t been a lot of testing,” he says. “U.S. Geological Survey has done some testing, mostly in the western part of the United States, and we were surprised at some of the levels we saw.”

Hyland says the findings are likely to boost support for a controversial bill carried over from the last legislative session. Sponsored by Representative Anne Perry, the bill would require drug companies that distribute medication in Maine also be responsible for collecting and properly disposing of unwanted drugs in medical waste incinerators.

Not surprisingly, Perry says the drug comapnies are opposed to the idea. “Essentially they don’t want to do it. I mean that’s really where they’re at.”

A spokesman for the drug research and manufacturers group known as PhRMA was unable to be reached for comment for this story. But in the past, Perry says, PhRMA has objected to what it says would be the bill’s high costs — upwards of $20 million — and intensive requirements.

Perry says she has tried to make the legislation more palatable for the industry by removing some testing and study provisions. She says she’s also put a cap on expenses for the first three years of the program.

“I really wanted an opportunity to really work with the pharmaceutical companies because my hope and intent is to get this passed, and with the passage with this we’ve got to have something that is doable for the pharmaceutical companies, and I’d really wanted to do that.”

A registered nurse, Perry says her research shows that in 2008 about 2.7 million prescriptions were written in Maine. Some estimates suggest as many as half of the medication prescribed is thrown out or sits on the shelf of a medicine cabinet somewhere unused.

Mark Hyland of the DEP says this poses a threat to people as well as the environment. “The main concern that there’s a lot of accidental poisonings that go on, people that take prescriptions that they shouldn’t be taking, children that take prescriptions that they shouldn’t be taking and drug overdoses from prescription drugs.”

Maine has a higher death rate from overdoses than car accidents. Even if most of the medication is consumed and expelled in human waste or flushed down the toilet, Perry says the remainder, however small, is a problem that ought to be addressed. A work session on her bill is scheduled for Tuesday.

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