Share story

WE’VE all heard the stories. The teenager who gets pills from her friend’s medicine cabinet. The toddler who finds Mom’s medicine and accidentally poisons himself. The father who becomes addicted to pain pills and accidentally overdoses.

In 2010, 209 King County residents died from an overdose of prescription drugs. That’s a loss of life equivalent to the crash of a full Boeing 737.

Prescription-drug misuse is a national epidemic. In King County, drug overdoses surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of preventable death in 2011. And more people die from prescription medicines than from heroin and cocaine combined.

Like many public-health problems, there is no single solution to prescription-drug misuse. But a convenient and secure unused-medicine-return program is a key strategy for addressing this problem. That’s because we know that roughly one-third of prescription and over-the-counter medicines sold in King County aren’t consumed. We also know that 32 percent of child-poisoning deaths in Washington were caused by someone else’s prescription medication, and 26 percent were caused by someone else’s over-the-counter medicine.

That’s why the King County Board of Health is considering a proposal to create a countywide secure medicine-return program. Under the suggested legislation, residents would be able to drop, free-of-charge, leftover and expired medicines in secure boxes conveniently located in most retail pharmacies or law-enforcement offices. Collected medicines would then be destroyed by incineration at permitted facilities.

Drug manufacturers selling medicines for residential use in King County would be required to run and pay for the program, similar to established product-stewardship programs in our state for items like computers. Public Health — Seattle & King County would oversee the program to ensure its effectiveness and safety.

Washington has led the nation in efforts to address the medicine-misuse crisis. We require health-care providers to be educated about prescribing opiate painkillers. A prescription-monitoring program is up and running. Law enforcement continues to take action to curb illegal use. A convenient way to dispose of unneeded medicines is the missing piece in our efforts.

There is significant demand for a take-back system in King County. Biannual medicine take-back events run by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are popular with county residents. Since 2010, these events have collected more than 17,000 pounds of unused medicines in King County alone.

Some law-enforcement agencies and pharmacies such as Group Health and several Bartell Drugs stores voluntarily offer drop-boxes for residents to dispose of their drugs. But because these programs aren’t widely available, they collect just a fraction of the unused medicines in our homes. A comprehensive system offering secure, safe and convenient disposal options to all county residents is needed.

Federal agencies such as the DEA, the Food and Drug Administration, Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Environmental Protection Agency all recommend take-back programs as the safest way to dispose of leftover and expired medicines and consider take-backs a key strategy to reduce prescription-drug abuse.

Last month the county Board of Health heard broad support for the proposal from law enforcement, nurses, poison-control experts and drug-prevention groups. These individuals and organizations know that our community wants and needs a secure, convenient way to dispose of their unneeded medicines.

By requiring drug manufacturers to invest mere pennies per prescription in a take-back system, we have the opportunity to help curb the drug abuse and poisoning epidemic in King County and to help keep our families and communities safe.

David Fleming is director and health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. Joe McDermott is a Metropolitan King County Council member.