A SAWS employee receives expired medication from a citizen.
A City employee receives expired medication from a citizen at a MedDropSA drug-drop event. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Water System

San Antonio residents who have unwanted, unused, or expired prescription drugs can safely dispose of them Saturday as part of MedDropSA, an effort by the City of San Antonio, the San Antonio Police Department, and San Antonio Water System to prevent medication abuse and environmental contamination.

Since the program started in 2009, 18 tons of prescription and over-the-county medications have been collected to be disposed of via incineration. But in a city of nearly 2 million residents, MedDropSA organizes just three mobile medication dropoff events per year.

At a time when the opioid epidemic is causing widespread deaths, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger would like to see more opportunities for residents to safely dispose of drugs, but cost and logistics are obstacles.

Bridger said that the Opioid Task Force, a County and City collaborative effort to combat the opioid epidemic, has been discussing adding permanent drop boxes throughout the city; and while there is no current implementation plan, “that doesn’t mean [they] won’t be making progress on this in the next several months.”

“The opioid epidemic is a strong motivator for us to really make [safe medication disposal] a priority,” Bridger said. “Everything is still in discussion because it takes time and it costs money.”

San Antonio lags behind even many smaller cities when it comes to options to regularly dispose of medication safely.

For SAWS, the priority is protecting the area’s water supply from contamination by prescription and over-the-counter drugs. A national study in 2000 by the U.S. Geological Survey found low levels of drugs such as antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives, and steroids in 80 percent of rivers and streams tested.

“The treatment processes we use aren’t designed to get medications out of the water,”  SAWS Communications Manager Anne Hayden said. “The best thing we can do is help people get rid of them.”

Hayden said that many people are misinformed about what is considered safe disposal and mistakenly believe that it is safe to flush medication down the toilet, dispose of it in a trashcan, or even keep it sitting in the medicine cabinet after it is no longer needed.

“Certainly it’s not a good idea to have [medications] sitting around, and you don’t want them in the environment,” Hayden said. “But there are also hazards to collecting and disposing” of large amounts of medication.

MedDropSA allows for safe disposal of medication. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Water System

Hayden said SAWS, Metro Health, and SAPD budgets in the cost of the drug dropoff events annually, with the only additional expense being incineration, the cost of which varies by the weight of the substances being destroyed. At each event, SAPD officers are on site to take custody of the medications and ensure they are safely transported for incineration.

“It’s only because of active cooperation [among SAPD, Metro Health, and SAWS] that we can have [the drug dropoffs] at all,” Hayden said.

Hayden said that San Antonio “started well ahead of the rest of the nation” in creating and implementing a drug-drop program.

U.S. consumers spent $328 billion on prescription medications in 2016, according to a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid report.

Outside of MedDropSA, some national drugstore chains offer disposal boxes at their local pharmacy locations for people to safely dispose of medications. Walgreens spokesman Phil Caruso said that the company has “collected 155 tons of unwanted medication since the program began in 2016 and [is] in the process of expanding safe medication disposal kiosks to an additional 900 locations across the country.”

Four Walgreens locations in San Antonio collect medications for safe disposal daily. Locally based Oakdell Pharmacy and Stone Oak Pharmacy do not offer medication disposal options.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that consumers take medications to drug take-back events, such as those hosted by MedDropSA, so that they don’t end up in a public landfill, being abused, or entering the water supply. If that option isn’t available, the EPA recommends removing the pills from their container and mixing them with an “undesirable substance,” such as coffee grounds or cat litter, and placing them in a sealed container where they can then be disposed of in a regular trash can.

The first MedDropSA event of 2018 will take place at the City of San Antonio’s bulky waste collection center at 2755 Rigsby Ave., from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Pills should be taken out of the plastic bottles and placed in a sealed bag; liquids and aerosols can stay in their original containers, but the labels need to be removed. Medical sharps, such as syringes and lancets, will not be accepted.

The dropoff location also will accept household hazardous waste that workers will safely dispose of for Bexar County residents with proof of address. It is not necessary to present a form of identification to participate in the medication disposal.

Hayden said organizers encourage people who are “cleaning out their medicine cabinets to also clean out their garage” and drop off old paint, batteries, and thermometers during their trip.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.