A coalition of environmental, public health and other groups is calling on the New York state Department of Health to implement a drug take-back law signed two years ago. The groups say the lack of safe disposal options for unwanted or expired pharmaceutical drugs not only contributes to the drug abuse epidemic and accidental poisonings at home, but also to water pollution.
The groups recently sent a letter to the state Department of Health calling for final regulations and implementation of the Drug Take Back Act within 30 days. The law requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to fund a statewide drug take-back program that provides safe, convenient drug disposal options for the public. Riverkeeper is one of the groups behind the letter, where Dan Shapley is water quality program director. He recognizes that the Department of Health has been under strain addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not like they’ve been sitting on their hands. We know that they’re working overtime, they’re working hard on these critically important health issues. But we did want to highlight this issue because it, too, is an important public health issue,” says Shapley. “And the addiction from opioids is not going away. It’s getting worse, in many cases, through the pandemic. So we want to make sure that this remains and becomes a priority so that we get this law implemented.”
In a statement, a DOH spokesperson says, “As it continues to lead the statewide emergency response to COVID-19 and prepare for the inevitable second wave concurrent with the upcoming flu season next month, DOH is completing its review of the public comments to the Drug Take Back Act, and working with DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] to implement the Act in a way that responsibly provides safe and secure options for disposal of medications in a manner protective of public health and safety as well as the environment.” Shapley says the public health community played a role in spotlighting the need to push DOH to implement the law.
“And really, it came from a call from the Ulster County Department of Health, quite frankly, which has been a champion for this, from a public health perspective with the opioid crisis really being acute in Ulster County, that people’s lives are at risk because we’re not providing people an opportunity to safely get rid of unused medications,” Shapley says.
First-term Democratic Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan credits Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith and his predecessor, County Executive Mike Hein, with helping to keep the county out front on addressing the opioid crisis.
“A lot of this has been a cultural change away from, years ago, this was… the only way of dealing with these issues was arresting people. We’ve realized long ago that this is a public health matter, and that we have to give people safe ways of recovery, of returning drugs and feeling safe and able to do that. That’s just we know so critical to getting people back to the path of recovery,” Ryan says. “So I really think Ulster County has led the way on that and, again, it’s a big credit to Dr. Smith and her team for those efforts that were started several years ago on this front.”
Ryan has prioritized addressing the opioid epidemic since taking office. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Drug Take Back Act in July 2018. It took effect in January 2019. Pharmaceutical manufacturers were required to submit take-back plans by July last year, which, according to the groups, has not occurred. The public comment period on draft regulations closed in December 2019.
“It’s a public health issue and it’s an environmental issue because we can use this law to keep people from flushing unused medications, give them a safe way to get rid of them,” says Shapley. “And when we stop the flushing, that means they’re not entering our waterways.”
Riverkeeper’s Shapley says the Drug Take Back Act was justified in part by the study findings by the Environmental Protection Agency and Cornell University, based on data gathered by Riverkeeper showing dozens of pharmaceuticals are present at low levels in the Hudson River, with the highest numbers and concentrations found at sewage treatment plants.
“We know that these are chemicals that we take to have an effect on us, right, whether it’s to slow down our hearts or speed up our heart or clear our arteries or whatever it may be, they are designed to have a biological effect, and we’re releasing those same active chemicals into the environment so it’s every reason to think they will have some effect on the living things in the river and elsewhere,” Shapley says.
Meantime, Shapley says several communities have programs or drop-off locations for unused medications.