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Editorial: Stop drugs from contaminating our water

Prescription medications are displayed during Nassau County's 2009

Prescription medications are displayed during Nassau County's 2009 Drug Disposal Program in Elmont. Credit: Jori Klein, 2009

Don't flush. That is the hard-and-fast rule for the safe disposal of pharmaceutical drugs on Long Island, where trace amounts of them are showing up in our drinking water.

It's unclear how the drugs threaten human health, but they are known to disrupt the reproduction of fish species. And some experts think they could be the next big threat to drinking and surface water quality.

Last year, the Suffolk County Legislature passed a law focusing on the biggest users of pharmaceuticals: hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and hospices. The law required them to file an annual plan with the county's Department of Health Services for the safe disposal of unused or expired drugs. The first plans were due this past January, but the county gave the institutions more time.

The first step in getting a grip on this problem is: No more delays. It's time we learned just what these institutions are doing and will do with these drugs. Health workers have told the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit advocacy group, that facilities are flushing large quantities of drugs. That has to stop. The safest method is incineration.

There are some helpful local initiatives, such as occasional drug disposal days. Even better, in Suffolk, homeowners can bring their drugs to any police precinct, and the police will dispose of them safely, by incineration. Nationally, there's a proposal to create a nonprofit corporation, financed by the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, to set up comprehensive take-back programs. Given the industry's clout, getting that bill passed will be tough. But we need some sort of national solution, and this bill seems a sound idea.

The U.S. Geological Survey has found traces of medications in 93 percent of groundwater it tested, including here in Suffolk. The Suffolk County Water Authority is finding still-tiny amounts. So the problem is small now, but it could grow if we don't act. The Suffolk bill and the national proposal are the right way to begin keeping our water safe from getting drugged.