Earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans joined to pass a spate of bills aimed at fighting Wisconsin’s heroin epidemic. The legislation included a provision that would require all ambulances to be equipped with drugs to treat overdoses as well as one that would grant immunity to those who report overdoses.
A lesser-known bill pushed as part of the package by both anti-drug forces and environmental activists tries to get people to properly dispose of unused pharmaceuticals.
The bill targets a problem encountered by anyone with excess pills who doesn't want to keep them around, accessible to children or addicts. How should these drugs be disposed of? Certainly not by flushing them down the toilet or the drain, risking the contamination of local water supplies.
The legislation, passed unanimously by both houses of the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker in April, allows municipalities to set up drug disposal programs.
“Many of us have been told for years to flush leftover medications, but now the impact that has had on our waterways is becoming clearer,” Amber Meyer-Smith, a lobbyist for Clean Wisconsin, said in January to the legislative committee drafting the bill. “Scientific research indicates a strong link between increasing levels of pharmaceutical waste and impacts to fish and wildlife populations.”
The chemicals can do all kinds of things to fish, from making them change sexes to increasing their appetite. The former hinders spawning and results in fewer fish, while the latter results in fish eating up all of a lake’s zooplankton, the organism that consumes algae and prevents the putrid weed from overtaking area lakes.
In addition to serious ecological concerns, the disposal of drugs into local waterways also poses a direct health risk to people. One study Meyer-Smith cited that was conducted on Minnesota streams uncovered high levels of endocrine disruptors, chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.
“We don’t have that same kind of money here to study the water, but it stands to reason that there is going to be a correlation between Minnesota and Wisconsin’s waterways," she said.
Indeed, a study by UW-Milwaukee on Lake Michigan discovered high levels of 14 contaminants linked to pharmaceuticals, an ominous sign for the future of the nation’s largest source of drinking water.
Locally, the medical disposal program is run by Safe Communities, a nonprofit funded partially by a number of local governments, including the city of Madison and Dane County. For years, it has run “MedDrop,” a program that allows residents to dispose of unused drugs in boxes at local police stations.
Clean Wisconsin and others hope that with the new legislation and increased awareness, more local governments throughout the state will begin to take action to prevent drugs from getting into the water.