Tribes, churches collect unused drugs to protect waterways 4-16-07

AP Environmental Writer

Rummaging through her bathroom cabinet recently, Kelly Mathews found a bottle of sinus medicine a doctor had prescribed - 18 years ago.

She didn't want to flush it down the toilet, aware of growing concern that unused drugs may be polluting waterways. Instead, this Saturday she'll take it to an unlikely disposal site: a church parking lot.

For the third consecutive year, a coalition of religious and environmental groups is conducting an Earth Day hazardous waste cleanup across Michigan's sprawling Upper Peninsula.

The Earth Keeper Clean Sweep began in 2005, when people dropped off 45 tons of household wastes such as paints, poisons and vehicle batteries. Last year, the program took in 320 tons of electronic waste for recycling - computers, cell phones, televisions, stereos - and drew plaudits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The focus this year is on castoff medicines. Nineteen collection sites will be open at churches - at least one in each of the peninsula's 15 counties.

The castoff drugs will be trucked to an EPA-licensed incinerator near St. Louis, Mo. Police and pharmacists will be stationed at every location to monitor handling of controlled substances such as narcotic painkillers, said Carl Lindquist, executive director of the Superior Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit group co-sponsoring the Clean Sweep.

Mathews, 36, who lives in the village of Big Bay near Lake Superior, said she came across the long-forgotten sinus drug while cleaning out her medicine cabinet.

``You can find some pretty creepy stuff,'' she said. ``You don't throw it away because you don't know what to do with it.''

The Clean Sweep will give Upper Peninsula residents a chance to get rid of old medicines and teach how to handle them in the future.

It's also part of a broader effort to convince people that caring for nature is a spiritual and moral duty, said the Rev. Jon Magnuson, a Lutheran pastor and founder of the Earth Keeper initiative. Secular organizations and faith-based congregations, which haven't always seen eye to eye, are teaming up around the country to protect the environment.

``This is not so much about hazardous waste collection as a change of consciousness,'' Magnuson said.

Representatives of nine religious traditions, from mainline Protestant denominations to Zen Buddhism, signed a compact in 2004 to support the cause in the Upper Peninsula. Several American Indian tribes are taking part.

Water cleanliness is next to godliness for many in the peninsula, which abounds with lakes and rivers and is surrounded on three sides by Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. Its waterfalls and trout streams are legendary.

``Not every kid can play in a clean river like my kids do,'' said Mathews, a Roman Catholic and mother of two. ``When you live in a place like this you have a responsibility to take care of it. That's stewardship, that's what we're taught in our Christian beliefs.''

Scientists have reported since the late 1990s that trace amounts of drugs are turning up in surface waterways after being flushed into sewage treatment plants, and in groundwater wells. They've been found in Great Lakes tributary rivers, said Elizabeth LaPlante of the EPA's Great Lakes office in Chicago.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recently detected birth-control hormones, codeine, the antidepressant Prozac and other medications in water discharged from municipal plants in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Monroe.

Scientists say the concentrations are minuscule and there's no evidence people are being harmed. But they may be causing reproductive, neurological and behavioral abnormalities in fish and other aquatic wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

The government is studying what might be done about drugs in wastewater systems and whether regulations are needed, said Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water.

In the meantime, the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies have urged people not to flush drugs down toilets or drains unless instructions with the drugs recommend doing so to keep them out of the wrong hands. Only a dozen or so highly addictive narcotics would carry that label, Grumbles said.

``The toilet shouldn't be a trash can,'' he said.

Instead, they suggest crushing or dissolving them in water, mixing the liquid with cat litter or sawdust and sealing it in plastic bags, which can be thrown in the trash. Some pharmacies are accepting unused medicines for disposal.

``It's a very important issue and one we want to get ahead of before it becomes a problem in the U.P.,'' Lindquist said.

LaPlante said the EPA gave Earth Keepers coalition a Lake Superior stewardship award last year for its Clean Sweep collection.

``They seem to be able to reach an incredibly large number of people, and they're incredibly committed,'' she said.


On the Net:

-Superior Watershed Partnership:

-Federal guidelines on drug disposal: