Auburn student pharmacists, police collaborate to remove unused and expired medications from homes

By Amy Weaver, Office of Communications and Marketing



Student pharmacists in Auburn University's Harrison School of Pharmacy and local law enforcement are working together to combat the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Members of the National Community Pharmacy Association at Auburn University and the Auburn Police Division have collected more than 170 pounds of unused or expired medications through two Medication Take Back events at Our Home Pharmacy on Moores Mill Road in the past year. By offering the community a convenient, safe and legal way to dispose of medications, student pharmacists and officers reduced the risk of these drugs being abused and ensured their safe disposal.

"People just think to flush their old medications down the toilet or throw them in the trash, but that can contaminate the water and someone could get them out of the trash," said pharmacy student Kim Nguyen. "If the medication wasn't prescribed for you, then they are being used inappropriately."

Each local Take Back day coincided with the national effort of the Drug Enforcement Administration to combat the abuse of prescription drugs. Since the DEA began sponsoring Take Back days in 2010, more than 2.8 million pounds of pills have been collected nationwide.

"We are concerned about, number one, people not realizing that the drugs are expired and trying to use them anyway and not getting the full benefit of the drug or the drug becoming harmful if they are expired," said Lt. William Mathews with the Auburn Police Division. "Number two, we have a big problem with kids having access to drugs that are just sitting around that the parents may not use any more and the kids experimenting with those drugs. So if the adults can get them out of the house when they're not using them any longer, then it prevents the kids from having access to those drugs."

According to the 2011 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 6 million Americans abuse prescription drugs. That same study revealed more than 70 percent of people abusing prescription pain relievers got them through friends or relatives, a statistic that includes raiding the family medicine cabinet.

Adam Patterson, the NCPA vice president instrumental in organizing the local Take Back events, said it was common for students to encounter people who simply did not know what to do with old medications or medications that had belonged to a family member who passed away.

"As of right now this is the best way to dispose of your medications," he said.

Elaine Beech, a representative in the Alabama Legislature and a 1983 Harrison School of Pharmacy alumna, has proposed a bill to allow pharmacists to legally collect unused or expired medications. Currently, only law enforcement can legally collect it. All medications collected by law enforcement and at Take Back events are boxed up and sent to the DEA for proper disposal. The Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010 amended the Controlled Substances Act allowing the DEA to develop permanent, ongoing and responsible methods for disposal.

Before Take Back days, the usual method for disposing of old medications was flushing them down the toilet or throwing them in the trash. But both pose potential safety and health hazards to people and the environment.

Jim Hairston, emeritus professor in Auburn's Department of Agronomy and Soils, said scientists became concerned about the flushing of medications when they discovered that many of the chemicals in medications went right through wastewater treatment plants without degrading. If the water purification process didn't remove the chemicals, he said they likely ended up back in the water supply consumed by people. The result could be long-term negative health effects for humans and ecological harm to aquatic organisms.

Patterson and Nguyen appreciated the Take Back events as opportunities to help the community and environment, as well as practice what they've learned in class. Student pharmacists test their knowledge of various medications and work on patient interaction, which is strongly emphasized in Auburn's pharmacy school.

"As pharmacists, we are the experts in medications, so we feel that it's a community service to collect them and answer any questions or concerns the community may have," said Patterson. "We can also counsel those patients who receive a free blood pressure or blood sugar check at our events. So it's very beneficial from our standpoint as student pharmacists."

"It's just a good way to get out in the community and make our presence known that we are pharmacy students and we are here to be more than just behind the counter," added Nguyen.

Last Updated: May 17, 2013

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