A pilot program launched this month will help Iowa residents who have unused medications stashed in medicine cabinets, kitchen drawers and elsewhere around their homes safely dispose of the drugs for free and in a more environmentally friendly way.
More than 300 pharmacies across the state will take part in the IowaTakeAway program. It was initiated through legislation passed earlier this year and is being administered by the Iowa Pharmacy Association and Sharps Compliance Corp., a Houston-based company that disposes of biomedical waste, used needles and syringes and unused medications.
Kate Gainer, vice president of professional affairs for the pharmacy association, said the goal is to provide Iowa residents with a safe, easy way to dispose of unwanted and expired over-the-counter and prescription medications.
"Every day pharmacists are asked 'What can we do with our unused medication?'" she said. "We were able to offer pharmacies a solution right there when patients had a question."
Gainer calls the program "very easy and very practical."
Patients can take their unused medication, in the packaging it was dispensed in, to a participating pharmacy and give it to a pharmacist. The drugs then are placed into a large tamper-resistant container that, when full, is shipped to a Sharps Compliance Corp. facility in Carthage, Texas, where law enforcement witnesses its incineration.
Program administrators said proper disposal of medications protect the environment by keeping the drugs from being flushed down the toilet or dumped into a landfill, where ingredients can leach out and contaminate groundwater. They add that it also can curb abuse by keeping the drugs out of reach of unintended users.
Pharmacists also get a chance to counsel patients on the importance of finishing medications as prescribed.
Claude Dance, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Sharps Compliance Corp., said pharmacies in more than two dozen states participate in similar programs, but Iowa's is the first with a statewide initiative.
"If (the program) is successful, hopefully other states will start to recognize there is a solution that's out there," he said. "The best of all scenarios is perhaps the federal government will start to recognize there is a national solution to the problem."
Most unwanted medications will be accepted for disposal. Controlled substances such as Vicodin, Hydrocodone and Demerol will not be accepted because federal officials haven't approved the method of handling such drugs. Dance said his company has the infrastructure to dispose of those drugs and eventually expects to get the go-ahead from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
During a separate one-day pharmaceutical drop off in Polk County last weekend, people in central Iowa got rid of more than 500 pounds of unwanted medications.
The statewide program will have the capacity to dispose of up to 5,000 pounds of unwanted medications in its first month.
Organizers of the Iowa TakeAway program said more than 4 billion prescriptions are filled every year in the U.S. and as much as 40 percent of the medication goes unused. That results in more than 200 million pounds of pharmaceutical waste, some of which can enter drinking water.
The Iowa program is being paid for with a $160,000 state grant. Dance estimated that 75 percent of the funding pays for the disposal systems _ which include the factory-sealed container, data tracking and shipping _ while the other 25 percent is for administrative and marketing costs.
Gainer said 315 pharmacies have signed up, making the program available in 97 of Iowa's 99 counties. Each pharmacy gets up to three, 20-gallon containers for collecting unused medications. It costs about $115 for each of the containers, including shipping and disposal.
Administrators will seek additional funding to keep the program going after the initial allotment of containers is filled, Gainer said.
"By no means is any pharmacy looking to make money on this program," Gainer said. "They want to offer it as a service to their patients."
Helen Eddy, the officer in charge of health and wellness for Hy-Vee Inc., said all of the grocery chain's pharmacies will participate in the program.
"We get lots of requests for this service on a daily basis so we are very happy to be able to offer (customers) an option," she said. "It gets medications out of their homes and at the same time protects the environment."
If the state doesn't renew funding but the program proves successful, Eddy said Hy-Vee officials will discuss whether to self-fund disposal efforts.