Advocate for Patients and the Environment, Too

Among the dozens of details that needed attention after my father died, was figuring out what to do with the virtual pharmacy we found in his apartment. Dad was a firm believer of better living through chemistry – and he had dozens of prescription bottles, supplements and vitamins, patches and more, in the bathroom, the kitchen and next to his desk. I think CVS could have stocked up from his stash.

Among them were drugs he had taken that hadn’t worked – so the entire rest of the prescription just got put away. We also found dozens of herbal supplements he had tried over the years ranging from dandelion weed, to pomegranate capsules, from controlled substances like hydrocodone and oxycontin, to the leftovers of some heavy duty prostate cancer drugs.

We had to dispose of them, of course.

The social worker and nurse from hospice came by to log the amount of the remaining pain meds they had prescribed in his last few weeks – but they were not allowed (state law I think?) to take the leftovers with them. I asked how they suggested we dispose of them, and the nurse replied, “Just flush them.”

I almost fell over. Flushing drugs is one of the most dangerous things we can do to our environment, in particular because it taints our drinking water. Studies have shown traces of human drugs in the water supply of every metro water supply in the US. Beyond that, fish have been found to be genetically altered by human drugs in rivers and streams.

So, NO, I told the nurse. We won’t be flushing them. Instead, I called downstairs to the nursing staff affiliated with Dad’s residence, and asked the head of nursing what to do with the drugs.

“Just flush them down the toilet,” she told me.

Once again, I almost fell over. Just could not believe my ears. I asked her whether she understood why it was so dangerous to flush drugs. She admitted that yes, she knew the dangers and agreed with me. But as the head of nursing for a senior home in Florida, she was required by state law to destroy drugs by flushing them.

To say I am appalled is putting it mildly.

Ultimately we did not flush them. Instead we followed some of the best practices developed by the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dispose of all those drugs properly.

Why is this important for health advocates?

Most patient advocates become aware of, or involved in the scheduling for, or otherwise relate to the drugs their clients take, or are prescribed. Often you may find in their homes leftovers or unused drugs or supplements (including vitamins), perhaps even expired drugs, over-the-counter or prescriptions – maybe found in medicine cabinets, or on the kitchen table, or anywhere in between.

There are many reasons those extras shouldn’t be in the house, and there are better ways to dispose of them than others. As a health advocate, you can take it upon yourself to work with your client to dispose of them, keeping both your client, his loved ones, and the environment as safe as possible.

It’s a great service to offer, and you never know when you’ll be saving a life either directly, or indirectly, by your actions.

> Learn more about the dangers to people and the environment when drugs are not disposed of properly.

> Learn some simple steps and best practices for getting rid of drugs in other ways (not flushing!).

And if you’re in Florida, or any other state that insists on putting its environment and drinking water supply in jeopardy, you might want to pass on a link to this post to anyone in a position to actually change the rules. Either that, or, don’t drink the water or eat the fish.

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