100,000 pounds of medications in DuPage alone shows need for safe disposal
When DuPage County's network of 18 prescription drug take-back boxes reached the 100,000-pound mark of drugs collected this month, one thing was clear: There's a pressing need for safe disposal of unwanted medication.
"It's not that people are getting their medicine cabinets cleared out once" and never needing a disposal site again, said Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department, which oversees the RxBOX network of drop boxes. "It seems to be a very steady and consistent need in our community."
Facing an opioid epidemic that killed 668 people in the suburbs in 2017, among 72,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide, officials say residents are looking for any protective measure to shelter loved ones from drug misuse.
"People are realizing that this is a really important strategy in reducing substance use," Ayala said. "They want to take action in some positive way."
Safely disposing of extra or unwanted medications helps, drug prevention experts say, because it lessens easy access to drugs that young people can try to seek for a high. It also decreases the likelihood prescription experimentation will develop into use of illicit drugs like heroin.
Bill Gentes, project coordinator for the Lake County Opioid Initiative and the Lake County Underage Drinking and Drug Prevention Task Force, said the amount of drugs collected each year at 33 sites in the county's take-back program is "eye-opening."
Many drugs collected are items such as Prilosec or Tums, not regulated on the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's schedule of restricted narcotics. However, Gentes said every 100 pounds of pills turned in can yield an average of 300 doses of opioids, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, worth roughly $600 on the street.
"Getting those types of drugs out of the hands of people who could misuse them is an excellent way of moving forward," he said.
Opioids shift focus
Such safe drug disposal -- by incineration at six permitted facilities in Illinois -- also keeps waterways and aquifers safe from potential contamination.
When DuPage County launched the RxBOX program with eight sites in 2009, Ayala said its focus was environmental, "to reduce the contamination of the drinking water" and educate against the old disposal method of flushing drugs down the toilet.
That changed in late 2013 and early 2014 when DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen sounded the alarm about heroin overdose deaths. The suburbs had been aware of heroin as a problem drug since the early 2000s, but its use began to spike again locally after 2010.
Once heroin concern rose, Ayala said, RxBOX "really took off." It added more collection sites and did more promotion to link the decreased availability of prescription opioids to a decreased potential for misuse, and one less gateway to black-market drugs.
Nearly five years later, Ayala said, drug disposal is part of a comprehensive strategy -- including prevention, education, overdose reversal, stigma reduction, treatment and recovery -- that the county's Heroin Opioid Prevention and Education Taskforce is using to lower the death toll.
Similarly, Gentes said Lake County's drug take-back program expanded greatly in 2014 from about eight sites to 33. It has since collected roughly 70,000 pounds of unwanted medications, he said.
Will County Green, which runs a pharmaceutical take-back network of 21 sites, has totaled 15,240 pounds since October 2007, said Dave Hartke, a senior waste analyst.
The Cook County sheriff's office launched its network of more than 80 take-back sites in 2017 and has collected 32,000 pounds of medication. By the end of the year, officials expect the program will take in 40,000 pounds, putting it on track to hit the 100,000-pound mark in five years, by 2021.
DuPage County took nine years to hit that milestone, and Lake County appears on track to do it in about eight. The total pounds collected in Kane County and McHenry County were not immediately available.
Laura Crain, who runs the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition, said another service available across the nation always collects high volumes of drugs.
Twice a year, the DEA offers Drug Take Back Days for safe, convenient medication disposal through local law enforcement agencies. The events are in April and October. Crain said the most recent collection in McHenry County drew more than a ton of discarded medicines, roughly 2,100 pounds. The next DEA take-back day is scheduled for Oct. 27.
'A positive impact'
Officials say these take-back options are popular partly because they are free and convenient. That's why the Cook County MEDS Disposal Initiative is an important complement to the sheriff's office's network of sites, said Heidi Frederickson, a public relations professional who operates the campaign.
The MEDS initiative has attended more than 50 health fairs and public events across Cook County since it launched in June 2017 and has informed thousands on how to access its website to find the closest drug take-back facility.
There is always a high need for disposing of extra pills people don't take after surgeries or medications that have lingered in the cabinet. Another key time is after someone dies -- end-of-life hospice medications often include morphine or other opioids, which are among the riskiest for misuse.
The next frontier could be going to those who need the service the most, Gentes said. The Lake County program, in cooperation with the Round Lake Park Police Department, recently hosted a mobile take-back in the Saddlebrook Farms community for residents 55 and older.
"In two hours," Gentes said, "we got 350 pounds of prescription drugs, just dropped off."
That's 350 pounds officials are happy to take out of the public consumption stream and dispose through methods such as incineration after soaking in a barrel half-filled with gasoline.
"No one's going to go after oxy that's sitting in gasoline for a couple days," Gentes said.
Every pill not taken is a plus, public health officials say.
"Overall, by reducing access to these medications," DuPage County's Ayala said, "we will have a positive impact within our communities."