Creating safe medicine disposal options

We all have a cabinet or drawer filled with expired or unwanted medicine: That supersized bottle of ibuprofen from a couple years ago, or the leftover pain meds from a previous surgery. What we don't yet have is a convenient, safe way to dispose of them.

Flushing medications down the toilet sends them to sewage treatment plants that are not designed to remove them, meaning the chemicals end up polluting San Francisco Bay and harming wildlife. Putting drugs in the trash could not only lead to a very medicated — or poisoned — pet dog, but also presents environmental risks, as the chemicals can leach out of landfills and into groundwater.

It can seem easier to just close the medicine cabinet and forget about it, which frankly, is what many of us do. Unfortunately, that approach can have the worst consequences of all, as the drugs are often misappropriated by people struggling with addiction or kids looking for a high, or misused by the elderly who may confuse them with their daily meds.

Unwanted medications in the home can fuel addiction and poisonings, while in the sewer and garbage, they pollute the environment. We need a better option, a responsible system for drug disposal much like the ones California has created for motor oil, paint, batteries, car tires and mattresses.

Along with other city leaders, public-safety and health officials, senior groups, and environmental advocates, we are advancing legislation that would expand The City's existing medicine disposal pilot program and make it permanent — so that all San Franciscans have convenient drug disposal options. Under our legislation, consumers could simply place their medications in secure drop-off bins in pharmacies, or return them by mail, all at no cost and without any increase in drug prices.

Our legislation would require drug manufacturers to fund and operate full collection programs, just as they do throughout Europe, Colombia, Brazil and directly to our north and south in Canada and Mexico. The programs are surprisingly cheap to operate, yet many of these same drug producers are and have been fiercely opposed to funding them in California.

San Francisco has been operating a small drug disposal pilot program for about three years. In that time, our pilot, which now includes 13 pharmacies and all 10 of The City's police stations, has safely collected 23.5 tons of medicine. That is 47,000 pounds of chemicals that will not end up in our Bay or groundwater because of this program. Clearly, San Franciscans want safe medicine disposal and will use it if it is free and convenient. Imagine how much more we could collect and properly dispose of if we could afford to include more than just 13 pharmacies.

Alameda County actually adopted the first law in the country requiring drug manufacturers to administer and fund medicine collection programs. The industry sued and lost, in both the lower federal court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If San Francisco passes a drug disposal law, the industry may sue us, too. They certainly have a lot of skilled lawyers. But so do we. And we have the precedent of Alameda County's wins, along with the support of a city that is not easily intimidated.

San Francisco won't back down from protecting our environment or public safety. Now is the time for us to pass this law and make it convenient and safe for San Franciscans to dispose of unwanted medication. In so doing, we may also reprise our city's longtime role as a policy leader, by helping inspire other counties and even the state to pass similar laws that will protect our waters as well as our families.

London Breed is president of the Board of Supervisors.

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