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updated: 8/10/2010 1:43 PM

Prescription drug disposal program expanding in Lake Co.

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When Paul Ritter's wife asked him what she should do with unused pharmaceuticals in the family medicine cabinet about two and a half years ago, he decided to pose that same question to his students.

What started as a simple question from a high school ecology teacher has turned into the nation's largest prescription drug disposal program, and one that is coming to Antioch, Lindenhurst and Lake Villa.

Ritter started the Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal Program to educate the public about the environmental dangers of improperly disposing drugs and teams up with local governments, pharmacies and schools to place the disposal boxes in communities.

"The long and the short is this program is very much an environmental program, a health program and a safety program," he said.

Locally, the move is headed by four students from Antioch and Lakes community high schools. Disposal boxes will be set up at the police stations in Antioch, Lindenhurst and Lake Villa as early as next month.

Ritter, who teaches at Pontiac Township High School, gives most of the credit to his students and students across the country who are starting local branches of the program.

"I love it when people say 'I can't believe students can get this kind of stuff done'," Ritter said.

The locations will accept any noncontrolled, nonhazardous medications, vitamins and supplements that will be collected and incinerated.

The program debuted in Lake County last summer, when students from Highland Park High School set up a disposal box at the Highland Park Police Department.

The main problem with improper disposal of drugs - down a drain or thrown away with the garbage - is they often find a way back into the water system, said Bob Schieck, president of the Antioch Lakes Organization, who has been working with Ritter.

"Our program started with the philosophy that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Ritter said, explaining it is cheaper to run a proper disposal program than it is to deal with the results later.

Ritter stressed the program's hope to keep prescription drugs out of the wrong hands. He said one of the most tragic stories he has heard was from the mother of a girl who took an unknown pill at a party that turned out to be a common antibiotic. The girl was allergic and died that night.

"It's so tragic that people are playing Russian roulette with these pills," he said.

The program has disposed more than 120,000 pounds of prescription drugs and has spread to 11 states, with five others starting programs soon.

Ritter said the program was originally named the Pontiac Prescription Drug Disposal Program, but spread so quickly within two weeks they needed to drop "Pontiac" from the name.

"At age 40 I'm sitting here as a high school teacher looking at one of the greatest things I've ever been a part of," Ritter said.