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By Scarlet Sims, The Morning News
Prescription 'Take Back' Program Being Studied
BENTONVILLE -- Law enforcement and government officials for years have told the public to flush unwanted medication.

Both are now questioning that advice in light of a U.S. Geological Survey report showing trace amounts of medication, including caffeine, antibiotics and steroids, in Fayetteville, Springdale and Decatur streams. The May 2006 report uses data taken in 2004.

"It really opened my eyes," said Benton County Judge Gary Black. "We've always encouraged people to flush drugs down the toilet. Then if they don't flush it, they put it in the trash, and it goes to our landfill."

Waste treatment plants cannot remove the drugs from the water, Black said. That means flushed medicine ends up discharged into creeks.

But unused pharmaceuticals in landfills also leech anti-depressants, cholesterol-lowering drugs, steroids and estrogen through the soil and into groundwater, the study says.

Black called about 17 officials from Bentonville, Rogers and Benton County to talk about the issue Thursday with pharmacists and state scientists. Black wants the group to develop a program to keep unused medicine from the water supply. The proposed Pharmaceutical Take Back Program will allow people to return prescription medication to a secure location.

Black said he learned about drugs' potential dangers from Nancy Busen, the Bentonville laboratory and pretreatment supervisor, and Joyce Higgins of the Benton County Environmental Services Department.

No one knows exactly what the medicine will do to humans, said Cliff Treyens, public awareness director with the National Ground Water Association.

"Research is the key right now," he said.

Scientists found evidence pharmaceuticals in Boulder Creek in Colorado may have contributed to sex changes in fish, including mutations where fish have both male and female organs, said Joel Galloway, a water quality specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Research is just beginning in the field, he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey report on the Fayetteville, Springdale and Decatur streams shows Spring, Mud and Osage creeks to have the highest pollutant levels of the seven tested streams in Northwest Arkansas. The White River was basically clean, Galloway said.

Medications are considered pollutants.

Law enforcement officers have told the public to flush unwanted medication for years, said Deputy Doug Gay with the Benton County Sheriff's Office.

"Some of our decisions we've made in the past may not have been good ecological decisions," he said.

Washington state has a pilot program providing drop-off sites in seven pharmacies in five counties, according to the program's Web site. Police officers supervise the drop-off and processing of the medication.

Residents filled half of a five-gallon bucket daily during the first year, but now they fill two five-gallon buckets every day, said Emma Johnson, project facilitator with the Washington State Department of Ecology. The county has collected 1,000 pounds of medicine, which is incinerated by a licensed company.

The program team is asking the Drug Enforcement Administration to waive the requirement that only police officers can accept returned medication. Having pharmacists able to take returns will make the program cheaper and more convenient, Johnson said.

"It's a really difficult effort because of the different regulations involved," she said.

The program is a success, Johnson said, but she hasn't noticed a difference in the water quality. Few studies gauge impact, she said.

A "take back" program will be proactive, said Loy Bailey, director of the Benton County Health Department.

"I just think the judge is getting ahead of the curve by initiating this rather than waiting way down the road for a crisis," he said.

The committee will next meet at 8 a.m. May 17 at the Benton County Administration Building.

At A Glance

Exploratory Committee

A nine-member exploratory committee was formed Thursday to research a pharmaceutical "take back" program. The members include pharmacists Jim Johnson, Bob Bastain and Jim Milholen; Thomas Dunlap, Benton County human resource specialist; Loy Bailey, Benton County Health Department director; Doug Gay, Benton County Sheriff's deputy; Nancy Busen, Bentonville laboratory and pretreatment supervisor; Joyce Higgins, Benton County Environmental Services enforcement officer; and Bob Winnes, Rogers Pollution Control Facility environmental compliance specialist.
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