New state program a good Rx to get rid of old pills

Drug dropoff sites a way to cut abuse, boost environment

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A University of Pittsburgh pharmacy student looked quizzically at a tall orange bottle of anti-inflammatory medicine sitting before him, from the long-defunct Phar-Mor drug store chain, stamped with the date May 3, 1986.

"This was filled 27 days before I was born," said John Yamber, 23.

Mr. Yamber was part of a small army of doctors, pharmacists, police, waste haulers, Drug Enforcement Agency officers and city administrators working Saturday on Pennsylvania's first medication clean-up day.

Designed largely as an effort to stem drug abuse or accidents, it also became a way for environmentally savvy Pittsburghers to cleanly and safely get rid of old pills and other medicines at two temporary drop-off centers in the West End and Larimer.

"For so long, it was just knee-jerk to throw them in the toilet, but that has devastating consequences," said Leonard Costa of Carnegie. "This is a really good thing. I didn't know what to do with them."

Studies have shown that flushed medications have worked their way into rivers and other waterways and have begun to alter the behavior and makeup of fish and other organisms.

"I'm not putting this stuff in the water. And what do I do if I can't rinse them? I can't recycle them," said Jolene Watson, who drove to the West End Senior Center from Emsworth to get rid of her bottles. "I've never seen [the drop-off centers] happening anywhere."

Jeff Worsinger of Brighton Heights was worried about throwing his old drugs away and having them leak into ground water, so he drove over to the West End center too.

"It's been five years, so what's a couple of miles for that?" he said.

The state's debut clean-up day was organized by Drug Free Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Medical Society in Harrisburg, with local help from the Ravenstahl administration, which volunteered Pittsburgh to host the pilot effort.

It was funded with a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to educate parents and teens about prescription drug abuse.

For teenagers, painkillers such as Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin -- taken from their parents' and grandparents' medicine cabinets -- are increasingly the hard drug of choice, said Drug Free Pennsylvania's executive director, Chad Rohrbach. The pills are sometimes ground up and snorted, sometimes mixed in a bowl with other random drugs for "pharm" or "bowl" parties.

Use has also skyrocketed in rural areas, where the prescription drugs can be easier to find and circulate than other heavy drugs, such as heroin or cocaine.

"If we clean out the cabinet, we clean up the street," said Dr. Robert Oelhaf, who has drug addiction practices in Fayette and Greene counties.

One reason the drugs are so easy to get is they are so hard to dispose of. That held true even at the state-sanctioned events Saturday.

Seventy-three people dropped off bags and boxes of drugs at the two centers yesterday, and every set of pills had to be catalogued by pharmacists into controlled substances (such as painkillers and sleep aids) and noncontrolled (such as antibiotics).

Only DEA agents could dispose of the controlled pills. Professional waste haulers took the noncontrolled ones to an incinerator, under toxic waste regulations overseen by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Future drop-off events in Harrisburg and Philadelphia are planned for the fall or later, after organizers study the Pittsburgh pilot effort.

"The goal is to figure out a simpler way to do this," said Dr. Mohamad Arif Ali, who got the city involved via the mayor's Youth Commission. "We'll work together to come up with a solution."

More information on teen prescription drug abuse is available from the Pennsylvania Medical Society at

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581. Read the Early Returns blog at


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