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Originally published Monday, February 21, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Drug companies should help consumers dispose of unused, dangerous drugs

The Washington Legislature should enact legislation to require drug companies to provide a safe system so consumers can dispose of their unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs, writes guest columnist Jim Williams, executive director of the Washington Poison Center.

Special to The times

EVERY day, unsuspecting Americans open a door to potential killers.

It's the door to our medicine cabinet. And the unlikely killers are unused prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.

Reliable studies suggest that anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of all drugs go unused. In our state alone, that's hundreds of thousands of pounds of leftover medicines each year.

These medicines are designed to improve life, but they can also destroy it. They account for an estimated 85 percent of fatal poisoning deaths in our state.

These medicines can cure illness, but they also create it. A third of all child poisoning deaths are caused by someone else's prescription meds — and 26 percent by OTC medications.

These medicines can ease pain, but also cause it. The door has swung open to increasing numbers of teen drug abusers, three out of five of whom say prescription pain relievers are easy to get — not in some dark alley, but from their parents' bathrooms.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, "a majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet. In addition, many Americans do not know how to properly dispose of their unused medicines, often flushing them down the toilet or throwing them away — both potential safety and health hazards."

Each year, unused medicines expose us, our children and our environment to some 33 million containers of what can accurately be described as toxic waste. Like land mines to curious kids at play — they represent a clear and present danger.

There is a solution that's simple, safe and cost effective — a statewide program providing convenient drop-off locations for unused medicines for safe and secure disposal. A comprehensive, statewide system is needed to ensure that all Washington residents have easy access to a place to take their unused drugs.

Corporate social responsibility doesn't end with mitigating a crisis. It begins with helping to prevent one before it occurs. The pharmaceutical industry can work with us to help reduce the growing threat posed by unused medicines to people of all ages. A comparatively small investment by the industry to provide safe and secure medicine collection and disposal is not just the right thing to do. It's also good business.

Our neighbors in British Columbia have partnered with drug manufacturers, who support and fund such a program. In 2009, the B.C. program safely disposed of more than 50 tons of hazardous unused medicines. The price tag? $391,000 (U.S.). That's well less than one penny per safely returned container.

The pharmaceutical industry selling medicines in Washington has the expertise and resources to help our communities. We believe it also shares the responsibility. Pharmaceutical companies sell $4 billion worth of medicine every year, and spend nearly a half-billion dollars to advertise in Washington state. Now, we feel, it's time for them to "penny up."

Legislation in Olympia, SSB 5234, would have pharmaceutical companies do just that — provide a safe statewide medicine-return program. Sadly, the issue has become mired in a political and ideological quagmire in Olympia, where lobbyists for drug companies fill the halls, and the cost of inaction is very expensive indeed.

It's time to slam the door on this problem by providing a safe, sustainable program for Washington residents to take back their leftover medicines for proper disposal.

Failure to act is a prescription for disaster.

Jim Williams is the executive director of the Washington Poison Center and a member of the Take Back Your Meds Coalition (

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