Cities seek to keep drugs out of waterways

Peninsula agencies this week are asking residents to clean out their medicine cabinets and bring drugs in for disposal in an effort to keep prescription drugs out of area waterways.

Once upon a time, people were told to flush unwanted pharmaceuticals down the toilet to keep children from finding them. Now, researchers are finding worrisome levels of these drugs in rivers and streams, and studying their effects on marine life.

“Wastewater plants are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals,” said Kathy Suter, laboratory director at the South Bayside System Authority, which treats wastewater from Redwood City, San Carlos, Belmont and Menlo Park. “Until the technology to do that becomes cost-effective and affordable, we need to get people to change their behavior.”

Acetaminophen, often sold as Tylenol, showed up in 24 percent of stream samples in a 200 study performed by the U.S. Geological Survey. Since then, European researchers have observed the feminization of fish in a number of waterways, thought to be linked to the estrogens contained in oral contraceptives and hormone-replacement drugs.

“The female hormone is taking over the male cells,” said Karin North, associate engineer for the city of Palo Alto. Although the amounts are small — equivalent to one drop of hormone in an Olympic-sized swimming pool — they are still affecting marine animals. The effects of other drugs in this “low-concentration soup of pharmaceuticals” have not been fully studied, she said.

Collection days will take place in Millbrae, Belmont, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park this week. Drugs will be incinerated after they are collected.

This is the only time of year pharmaceuticals can be turned in because agencies in San Mateo County have not established other ways of accepting them, according to North.

Even a drugstore such as Walgreens, which held collection days in San Francisco in past years and is expanding them to the Peninsula this year, can’t collect old pharmaceuticals on an ongoing basis, company spokesman Michael Polzin said.

Millbrae officials wanted to organize a collection day sooner, but existing laws prevent cities from possessing prescription medicines that belong to other people, according to Dick York, superintendent of the city’s water-pollution control plant.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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