Taking care of old drugs

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      The Medications Return Program makes it easy to protect the environment.

      Taken a look in your medicine cabinet lately? If you're like me, a tangle of old tubes, bottles, and blister packs is collecting dust on the shelves.

      As it turns out, I've been wrong to hang on to my old medicine, but right not to throw it in the garbage or flush it down the toilet. According to many environmental and government organizations, including Health Canada, drugs sitting in landfills or drifting in waterways can be harmful. A section on the Health Canada Web site called "It's Your Health" (www.hc-sc.gc.ca/iyh-vsv/index_e.html) cautions readers about the risks. "There is growing evidence," the site reads, "that throwing out or flushing into the water system prescription drugs, nonprescription drugs and other health products may have a harmful effect on the environment.”¦The presence of these substances in the environment is emerging as an important national and international issue." The site also notes that such substances may add to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

      The issue was big enough that in 1996, the B.C. pharmaceutical industry voluntarily established the Medications Return Program (www.medicationsreturn.ca/british_columbia_en.php), which allows consumers to return at no charge unused or expired medications to participating pharmacies.

      The Post-Consumer Pharmaceutical Stewardship Association (PCPSA), based in Ottawa, administers the program, and more than 90 percent of B.C. pharmacies are registered in it.

      The high rate of participation is no surprise, according to PCPSA executive director Ginette Vanasse. "It fits well in today's culture of environmental consciousness," she said in an interview with the Georgia Straight from her Ottawa office. "And we've tried to make it as easy as possible for both pharmacies and consumers to participate."

      Indeed, all consumers have to do is sort through their cabinets once a year for medicines–including prescription and nonprescription drugs, herbal products, mineral and vitamin supplements, and throat lozenges–that have expired or are no longer being used. Then they can take them in their original containers to the nearest participating pharmacy. Chances are there's one right in the neighbourhood.

      This raises the question of just how seriously we should take expiration dates. I know people who regularly ignore them, just as they blithely suck back milk or yogurt that's passed its best-before date, they pop expired painkillers without a second thought. Is this so bad?

      "Yes," insists pharmacist Rida Bazzi, who runs Imperial Pharmacy in New Westminster, which has taken part in the medicine-return program for four years, in a telephone interview with the Straight. "Obviously, if your life depends on a drug, you don't want to take any chances, but it's not just about effectiveness. Some medications go toxic after a certain time; tetracycline, for example. Others oxidize or won't disintegrate properly. Aspirin goes more acidic."

      He advises consumers to return all of their expired medicines, no matter how seemingly benign. He also suggests blacking out the personal information on the labels to maintain confidentiality and to save the pharmacist time.

      Once at the pharmacy, the medicine goes into a container for pickup. When full, it's taken to a licensed facility, where the drugs are incinerated. So burn a path to your medicine cabinet; with the medication-return program, there's no excuse not to go green.