June 6, 2011
In the last year, American drug disposal programs have claimed more than 309 tons of prescription and other drugs as people turn in their unused medications. While health officials congratulate themselves on a job well done, others consider what these numbers have to say about the state of American health care – how consumerism has leaked into the pharmaceutical industry and is now running rampant.
Perhaps taking a moment to understand how large 309 tons is, will help place the issue in perspective. 309 tons is roughly the weight of 7 or 8 fully grown humpback whales. In each ton, there are over 900,000 grams, and at least that number of pills or doses, which means that over 278 million pills were turned in. That means that for every person in the nation, one dose was turned in, either to be incinerated or buried. This weight was destroyed in two National Prescription Drug Take-Back events, on October 12 of last year and just over a month ago, on April 30.
Spearheading the initiative to give Americans a way to dispose of their unused prescriptions properly, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration sponsored two National Prescription Drug Take-back Days, one in October of 2010 and another in late April of this year. They reason that excess medications are contributing to the accelerating growth of drug addiction in the US. They focus on drug addiction as the problem and how they plan on solving it, but they never mention why so many excess drugs were purchased.
If just two days of effort, which have gone largely unnoticed by the media, were able to take in that significant a figure, you can bet that we harvested just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, there is every reason to believe that multiples of that figure are sitting behind medicine cabinets across the country. Even more have most likely been flushed down toilets, contaminating the water supply.
Still, health officials are excited by the turnout and optimistic about the effect programs of this type will have on health in the US. Administer of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, Michael Leonhart, responding to the results of the second Take-Back day, said: “With the support and hard work of our local law enforcement and community partners, these events have not only dramatically reduced the risk of prescription drug diversion and abuse, but have also increased awareness of this critical public health issue.”
According to the DEA and other authorities, the main reason for Take-Back programs in the US is spurred by the skyrocketing drug abuse in the country. According to the DEA, prescription drug abuse went up 13% from 2009 to 2010 and is expected to increase at a similar rate in 2011. It is clear that the war on drugs is quickly turning into a civil war, as Americans begin to find the purchase of legal substances easier and more appealing than buying imported ‘goods.’
But while the DEA pats itself on the back, the sheer number of excess meds lying around in American homes also paints a dark picture of the American health system and begs the question: why do we have so many drugs lying around?
One could argue that people are asking for too many medications. If you flip that coin around, then you would say doctors are over prescribing. But the issue does not stop at the examination table. In fact, it is not a health issue at all. It is a business issue.
Remember the H1N1 scare in 2009, and how everyone was terrified that Swine Flu would claim thousands of lives? Plenty of doctors appeared on News channels to report the possibility of a massive outbreak and the consequent need for wide-scale vaccinations. Millions of doses were produced, and millions of dollars were given to the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the vaccine.
When it turned out that the supposed outbreak would never happen, we were left with a stack of potentially harmful vaccinations. We then had to dispose of the surplus, roughly 40 million unused H1N1 doses, amounting to more than $260 million, wasted. These and other, similar, surfeit medications were not tallied in the 309-ton figure quoted above, by the way.
Giving citizens a proper means of drug disposal is certainly a great idea. The DEA emphasizes the impact that these medications have on American youth, as there are plenty of cases when children will sneak into their parents’ medicine cabinet to take their pills. This behavior can lead to drug abuse, later in life.
Health Canada, which has had drug disposal programs in place since the 90s, takes a different stance, reporting on their website that improper disposal can pose health risks, due to contamination of the water supply.
With such a staggering number of doses of medications now in the safe keeping of either the atmosphere or deep US soil, one can see why health officials are optimistic. These pharmaceuticals have been swept cleanly, neatly, tidily under the rug.
Equally poignant is environmentally conscious response, which takes a step back to look at this pattern in the US, which indicates our vagrant consumerism is being taken advantage of, even in a place as intimate as the doctor’s office. Why would we want to continue this unsustainable cycle, of creating more drugs than we need, just to spend more money, time, and effort to destroy them?
This article was posted: Monday, June 6, 2011 at 8:08 am