Heidi Sanborn has more than had her fill of the opioid crisis. In the past few years, she’s watched people shoot up heroin in front of her 21st Street office. She’s pulled nearly three dozen syringes out of the bushes in front of her Carmichael home. She’s even erected cages around her garbage cans to keep addicts from combing through the trash for discarded medicine.
But Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, considers it extra impetus for her group’s mission of teaching businesses and homeowners about how to deal with a growing medicinal mess.
“We pay so much attention to terrorists,” Sanborn says. “Terrorists aren’t the problem – we are. We are killing a Boeing 737’s worth of people every day in this country, and not acting like it’s a crisis. We’ve got to get on this thing.”
Nationally, two-thirds of all drug overdose-related deaths are from opioids, or about 19 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC. In California, the rate is significantly lower – 11 per 100,000. Locally, it’s 3 per 100,000, according to the state Department of Public Health.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that about one-third of all prescription medications are unused and end up in the trash, or being consumed by persons other to whom they were prescribed, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Only about 30 percent of leftover medication is disposed of properly, CMMS notes. The rest ends up being flushed, buried or irresponsibly obtained, according to Sanborn.
“We’re trying to get everybody to catch the 70 percent of the people who get addicted to the drugs because someone left the meds in an unlocked cabinet,” she says. “Or they’re getting addicted because the doctors are giving them prescriptions for highly addictive drugs, without any instruction for the patients. Or they’re going through the garbage.”
In response, CPSC launched a website, Don’t Rush to Flush, which offers free information on proper disposal techniques, location of drop-off sites, and topical news and related events.
“We put in a new medicine bin in Ione a few weeks ago, and we put the news on social media,” Sanborn says. “We had close to 250 responses. They were all along the lines of ‘Great job!’ And then it was, ‘Why doesn’t El Dorado (County) have one of these? Why don’t we have this in Galt?’”
Some businesses are also taking steps to help keep discarded drugs from ending up in the wrong hands.
In 2016, Walgreens began installing drug disposal kiosks at 600 of its pharmacies, including 50 in California and two in the Sacramento area. According to Walgreens media rep Phil Caruso, it’s a simple concept: the easy-access bins are in every participating pharmacy, many of which are open 24 hours. All a person has to do is walk up and drop in any unwanted medications, at a convenient time.
That’s a big deal when it comes to encouraging people to actually look for forgotten prescription drugs. “Most of the time, this medicine will just sit in the medicine cabinet, or people will throw them out,” Caruso says. “This offers a safe and secure way to get those drugs out of the home so they are not accidentally or intentionally consumed.”
In addition, Walgreens incinerates the discards instead of burying them, keeping chemicals out of the landfill.
“Customer response has been wonderful,” he says. “We’ve collected 155 tons of discarded medication in little more than a year. That’s more than we ever could have expected.”
There’s even more on the way. The company recently announced that it is expanding the program to 1,500 stores in all states except Alaska and Hawaii.
Walmart, the Sacramento area’s largest retailer, has its own prevention campaign with DisposeRX, a powder-filled packet that can be used to neutralize old medications. According to Marybeth Hays, executive vice president of Consumables and Health and Wellness at Walmart U.S., opioids and the DisposeRX powder, a crosslinking polymer, are mixed with water, then shaken. In about 10 minutes, the contents become a solid gel that can be safely disposed in the trash.
The company is offering the chemical for free to patients with Class 2 opioid prescriptions at all of its 4,700 pharmacies nationwide. “It’s a convenient and it’s a responsible way that our patients can get rid of their old medication without ever leaving their home,” Hays says.
It’s an alternative to finding a disposal center or a pharmacy that will accept the leftover medications, the company notes. Only 13 out of nearly 700 pharmacies in Sacramento County have a drug return policy.