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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: Last-Minute Win for the Hudson River

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa BoutiqueDying To Bloomand Strawtown Studio.
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On June 20, with just moments to spare before splitting for the summer, the New York State Senate passed the landmark Drug Take Back Act. The bill, already passed by the Assembly, requires pharmaceutical companies to provide a safe, convenient way for consumers to dispose of unwanted or unused medications.

How will this proposed law help the Hudson River? How did an environmental bill garner enough bipartisan support to pass in a Republican-led, dysfunctionally-divided Senate? And will Governor Cuomo sign the bill into law?

A troubling discovery

In 2015, Cornell University first sampled the Hudson River for pharmaceuticals. The following year, the Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in Palisades, in collaboration with staff from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), SUNY Queens College, and the environmental advocate nonprofit Riverkeeper conducted another round of studies. The results of LDEO’s tests showed growing levels of 16 common prescription and over-the-counter medications. Amounts were detected throughout the sampling area, from the Battery up to just north of Troy. But the greatest concentrations were found near municipal water-treatment outlets, like the one here in Orangetown.

The Hudson River serves 44 Hudson Valley communities as an outfall for treated sewage–as well as untreated sewage when rainwater overwhelms a system. It also serves about 100,000 Hudson Valley residents as a drinking water source, and is home to over 200 species of fish, as well as other plants and animals, many of them rare.

drug take back act

Research has shown that continuous exposure to low levels of medications has altered the behavior and physiology (including intersex characteristics)
of fish and aquatic life. Photo of brook trout: NYS DEC

Although pharmaceutical residue has not been proven harmful to human health, scientists like LDEO’s Dr. Andrew Juhl, who took part in the recent study, are taking notice. Juhl expressed his concern in a recent Earth Matters interview:

We know that these compounds are biologically active—that’s why we take them—so we can feel fairly confident that they will have some physiological impacts on organisms—fish, shellfish and other aquatic creatures—that are bathing in this complex mix of medications at every life stage. Even though the level is relatively low, the cumulative effects of this chronic exposure could be significant.

From pill bottle to river water

How do the pills and potions we swallow get into the river? 

pharmaceuticals in water

A portion of prescription and over-the-counter medications will not be used and if flushed or poured down the drain, can end up in our rivers and streams. Image: NYS DEC

First, humans excrete unmetabolized medications, which get flushed to the water treatment plant. Without definitive proof that medication residue harms human health, there’s no requirement—and no way—to remove them during treatment. The only way to address this right now is to make sure that people who take medications are taking only what’s necessary, and only in the correct dose. Regular medication reviews are good for patients and our waterways.

Second, people flush unwanted meds down toilet as the quick and dirty way to get them off the premises. To prevent pills from spiraling down the drain, it will take consumer education, and an ultra-convenient, everyday way to dispose of the unwanted meds. That’s where the new Drug Take Back Act comes in. Under the bill, secure disposal kiosks or mail-back envelopes, provided by drug companies, will be available in pharmacies, within easy reach of consumers in both urban and rural areas. Manufacturers will also be responsible for safe disposal.

If the Governor signs the Drug Take Back Act it will be the strongest legislation of its kind in the country that addresses the scourge of pharmaceuticals entering our waterways through improper disposal. Without this law, we will continue to see an increase of drug-induced behavioral alterations, sterility, bioaccumulation of toxins, and death of key species in our aquatic ecosystems.

                       Roger Downs, Conservation Director: Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter

A bipartisan breakthrough?

How did the Hudson-protecting Drug Take Back Act succeed in the NYS senate where another heavily boosted environmental bill—to ban single-use plastic bags—didn’t make it to a vote? The Drug Take Back Act was introduced by two conservative Republican senators, with 18 additional co-sponsors from both parties. That’s 20 out of 63 senators, almost one-third of the entire body.

And why the bipartisan support? The opioid crisis. Maybe you once filled a scrip for five days of opioid pain meds after a surgical procedure, but didn’t need or take them. Sitting in your medicine cabinet, they invite theft and life-ending disaster. Once the Drug Take Back Bill is signed and implemented, you will be able to drop unused meds at a nearby pharmacy and perhaps save a life or two in the process—and that’s no exaggeration.

opioid epidemic

Three waves in the rise in opioid overdose deaths. Image: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Will he or won’t he . . . ?

Now, the Drug Take Back Act is in the hands of Governor Cuomo. Earlier this month, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) released a report citing the need for such legislation, so Riverkeeper and other environmental advocates are expecting Cuomo to sign the bill in short order. But Cuomo may be feeling pinched from both sides. The deep-pocketed pharmaceutical industry isn’t happy about having to clean up after itself and its consumers, and is lobbying local and state officials. They have even sought legal remedies to avoid picking up the tab.

The two-term (seeking a third term) governor, however, is also under pressure to go increasingly green from the progressive, environmentally activist left, like gubernatorial primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon. And a recent stunning congressional primary upset by a 28-year-old Bronx democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can’t help but be on Cuomo’s mind as well. Ocasio-Cortez’s environmental platform, calling for the nation to run on 100% renewable energy by 2035, is sunlight-years ahead of Cuomo’s own“Reforming the Energy Vision” that aims to source 50% of New York State’s power from renewables by 2030.

protect orange county

Cynthia Nixon joined an Earth Day protest outside the Valley Energy Center. If elected, Nixon has pledged to rescind the plant’s air and other permits. Photo courtesy Protect Orange County

Cuomo vetoed a similar but less comprehensive Drug Take Back bill last December. As of publication, Cuomo has not indicated that he will sign the new Drug Take Back Act, and his office has not responded to EM’s request for comment. We’ll keep you posted.

Until the Drug Take Back Law is signed and implemented, Rockland County provides residents with safe and confidential ways to dispose of both controlled (opioid and other narcotic) and non-controlled medications.

Household Hazardous Waste Facility, 35 Firemen’s Drive, Pomona, NY 10970.  Non-controlled medications during regular dropoff hours, M-F 8a-1p. Controlled substances during weekend dropoff days and times only. See the 2018 HHWF brochure.

Rockland County Sheriff’s Office, 55 New Hempstead Road, New City, NY 10956. Any time 24/7 via lobby dropbox. Phone 845-638-5400

And at any Rockland County Police Department.

medication drop off boxes

The NYS DEC hosts a regularly updated map of dropbox locations in the state. Click on the map for up-to-date details on dropbox locations in our area.

Learn more:

Hudson River

Hudson River Sunrise. Photo: Dave Zornow

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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique, Dying to Bloom, and Strawtown Studio.

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