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Safely disposing of unwanted medication can help keep San Francisco Bay clean, people safe

Safe disposal of unwanted medication helps keep San Francisco Bay clean, people safe
Safe disposal of unwanted medication helps keep San Francisco Bay clean, people safe 02:24

One container at a time, Dr. Swati Patel does her 'spring cleaning,' of expired and unwanted medications, placing each one in a safe disposal bin at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

"The importance is two-fold," she said.

Patel said, by putting prescription pills, OTC meds, and more in the safe disposal bins rather than in the garbage or flushing them down the toilet, people are helping their community and the environment.

"The bin allows us to ensure that medications are disposed of correctly, both for the environment and for public safety," she said. "We ensure that unwanted, expired medications do not get into hands that we don't want, such as small children or even anybody that might find them on the streets or in the trash."

There are 62 bins across San Francisco. New data released by the city shows they've collected and safely disposed of more than 140,000 pounds of medications during the five-year period of 2017-2022.

"That's a lot of drugs that are being kept out of San Francisco Bay, all of our local creeks, and our environment," said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper. "Drugs and pharmaceuticals really don't belong in the Bay and don't belong in our waterways. It's really critical that we take every step that we can to try and keep pollution out of the Bay."

Choksi-Chugh said, when people flush pills, they end up going into the wastewater treatment plants.

"Wastewater treatment plants in San Francisco are not equipped to remove those kinds of drugs and chemicals out of our waste stream. So that means, those pharmaceuticals, drugs, all of those chemicals get directly into the water," she said.

And that, she said, has adverse effects on the wildlife and environment around the Bay.

"When you've got drugs that are in the food chain, you have larger fish eating the smaller fish, and that ends up working its way up the food chain. So, you end up getting exposure to these chemicals at all of these different levels in the food chain," she said. "When we have opportunities to take steps to keep pollution out of the Bay, we should take advantage of those."

Patel said more people are coming to drop off unwanted medications now than they have in previous years. When they started this program in 2017, she said they had a once-monthly pickup at her hospital. Now, they're at a pickup every two-weeks.

"Often times, it does get full before the two-week pickup, so we may have to call to have it picked up," she said.

She hopes others will do a spring cleaning of their medicine cabinets, as she does, helping the community by disposing of their meds in a people and eco-friendly way.

The city has 164 sites where people can get mail-back envelopes for their unwanted pills, and there are also drug-take-back events held at various points throughout the year.

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