Thousands of police stations, pharmacies and hospitals across the country will serve as drop-off points Saturday for unwanted prescriptions drugs as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration-sponsored campaign to fight prescription painkiller abuse.
But in an effort that last year brought in more than 702,000 pounds of unused pills, ranging from potent painkillers to expired antibiotics, what happens to all those drugs?
DEA officials say the drugs are burned, just like narcotics the agency regularly destroys.
After drugs are collected through the the DEA’s take-back events, they are transported to regional EPA-approved incinerators, said agency spokeswoman Barbara Correno.
“Many of them are incinerators we already have contracts with for destroying other drugs,” she said.
The incinerators are outfitted with special scrubbers that prevent the release of chemicals from the prescription drugs into the air. The disposal method also prevents drugs discarded in less secure ways from being scavenged out of the trash or being flushed down the toilet and potentially contaminating the water supply.
More than 5.5 million pounds of unused prescription drugs have been collected and destroyed through the DEA’s drug take-back events over the last five years.
Local police departments that run their own drug take-back events may combine their hauls with DEA collections or in some cases oversee the destruction of the drugs themselves.
A 2015 survey of Virginia law enforcement agencies that participated in take-back events found that 62 percent of departments combined drugs with DEA collections for disposal, while 17 percent had an internal method for destruction.
Agencies in rural areas that had year-round collection programs cited disposal as an ongoing challenge.
“We would like to see more access to disposal of prescription drugs,” said one respondent to the Virginia Department of Health Professions survey. “There are no local incinerators available to people on this end of the state and we are having to find out own ways of incinerating them.”
Said another respondent, “Even if we started a year-round collection point, we would need to dispose of the collected drugs probably ever two months which would require at least two staff members to travel to an incinerator at least 90 minutes away to dispose of the medication.”
The take-back events are touted as a way for authorities to remove unused drugs that have the potential for abuse if left in the back of medicine cabinets.
“Users of prescription drugs, the majority have said they get them from friends and family for free,” Ms. Correno said.
Over the last decade, drug overdoses have skyrocketed, driven primarily by the prescription opioid epidemic.
From 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the overdose rates show no sign of slowing down. Close to 19,000 people died from opioid painkillers in 2014, an increase of 16 percent over 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
All types of prescription drugs can be dropped off at the take-back events being held nationwide Saturday, but authorities caution participants not to try and dispose of illegal drugs.
“Don’t show up with any marijuana or any white powder,” Ms. Correno said.”We say there are no questions asked for prescription drugs, but that’s not the case for other illicit drugs.”