AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Traces of old and unused medications that people throw out with the trash are showing up in water, and Maine lawmakers took a step Wednesday toward reversing the problem — at the expense of the pharmaceutical industry.
By a 91-51 vote, the House of Representatives endorsed a bill to create a prescription drug take-back program. It would require drug manufacturers, individually or in groups, to set up and operate programs to collect, transport, manage and dispose of unwanted drugs from residences.
"We have a long, long history of putting chemicals into the environment where we aren't thinking about what the long-term impacts are, and this is one where we can address it," Rep. David Van Wie, D-New Gloucester, a former director of the state Bureau of Land and Water Quality, said during a debate.
Maine is one of 13 states with bills this year addressing pharmaceutical collection or disposal, according to the National Conference of state Legislatures. An Illinois law bars health care facilities from disposing of unused medications in wastewater systems. Under Maine's bill, which faces further House and Senate votes, manufacturers would have to pay for a collection and disposal program.
The industry has placed ads in Maine newspapers saying the proposal's expenses will be passed to consumers in higher medicine prices. Industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America says that levels of pharmaceuticals found in water supplies and landfills are too tiny to pose any risk.
Minute amounts of discarded drugs, such as antidepressants, birth control pills and over-the-counter pain relievers, have been found in water at Maine landfills in Augusta, Brunswick and Bath, confirming suspicions that pharmaceuticals thrown into household trash are ending up in water that drains through waste.
While drug-tainted leachate doesn't pose a direct threat to drinking water, environmental officials want to know whether water that flows into rivers from sewage treatment plants affects fish and shellfish. About 90 percent of the drugs found in water were excreted and flushed, not dumped into the trash, lawmakers for and against the bill agreed.
But sewage treatment plants are not equipped to filter out the drug traces that are pumped in, said Van Wie. And the remaining 10 percent that's trashed is significant, said Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, who's been working on the legislation for seven years.
While some Maine police agencies have run community drug-collection programs, state environmental officials say most Mainers have no way to properly dispose of their medications.
Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham and a medical doctor, recalled patients in her practice bringing bags of old drugs back to her for disposal. Having a mix of drugs around the house can cause confusion among some patients, who might ingest the wrong pills.
"Yes, we are asking the pharmaceutical industry to help us," said Rep. Patricia Jones, D-Mount Vernon. "With the huge profits they're making, it's only reasonable to ask that."
Jones also noted that the bill can also be defended on public safety grounds because it can discourage thefts from homes where prescription drugs — particularly painkilling opiates — are kept or where thieves believe they are kept. Jones said she was the victim of such a theft.
An opponent of the bill, Rep. Michael Celli, said he objected to "bashing" of the pharmaceutical industry.
"We do not bash the phone companies, the gas companies, the energy companies, credit card companies, insurance (companies)," said the Brewer Republican.
He said drug manufacturers already spend millions researching potential cures that never make it to the marketplace.
Opponents also argued that many questions remain about details of the legislation, which "still need a lot of time and a lot of work," said Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland.