U.S. Water News Online
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Rummaging through her bathroom cabinet
recently, Kelly Mathews found a bottle of sinus medicine a doctor had
prescribed -- 18 years ago.
She didn't want to flush it down the toilet, aware of growing
concern that unused drugs may be polluting waterways. Instead, she'll
take it to an unlikely disposal site -- a church parking lot.
For the third consecutive year, a coalition of religious and
environmental groups is conducting an Earth Day hazardous waste
cleanup across Michigan's sprawling Upper Peninsula.
The Earth Keeper Clean Sweep began in 2005, when people dropped
off 45 tons of household wastes such as paints, poisons and vehicle
batteries. Last year, the program took in 320 tons of electronic
waste for recycling -- computers, cell phones, televisions, stereos
-- and drew plaudits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The focus this year is on castoff medicines. Nineteen collection
sites were open at churches -- at least one in each of the
peninsula's 15 counties.
The castoff drugs will be trucked to an EPA-licensed incinerator
near St. Louis, Mo. Police and pharmacists will be stationed at every
location to monitor handling of controlled substances such as
narcotic painkillers, said Carl Lindquist, executive director of the
Superior Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit group co-sponsoring the
Mathews, 36, who lives in the village of Big Bay near Lake
Superior, said she came across the long-forgotten sinus drug while
cleaning out her medicine cabinet.
"You can find some pretty creepy stuff," she said. "You don't
throw it away because you don't know what to do with it."
The Clean Sweep will give Upper Peninsula residents a chance to
get rid of old medicines and teach how to handle them in the future.
It's also part of a broader effort to convince people that caring
for nature is a spiritual and moral duty, said the Rev. Jon Magnuson,
a Lutheran pastor and founder of the Earth Keeper initiative. Secular
organizations and faith-based congregations, which haven't always
seen eye to eye, are teaming up around the country to protect the
"This is not so much about hazardous waste collection as a change
of consciousness," Magnuson said.
Representatives of nine religious traditions, from mainline
Protestant denominations to Zen Buddhism, signed a compact in 2004 to
support the cause in the Upper Peninsula. Several American Indian
tribes are taking part.
Water cleanliness is next to godliness for many in the peninsula,
which abounds with lakes and rivers and is surrounded on three sides
by Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. Its waterfalls and trout
streams are legendary.
"Not every kid can play in a clean river like my kids do," said
Mathews, a Roman Catholic and mother of two. "When you live in a
place like this you have a responsibility to take care of it. That's
stewardship, that's what we're taught in our Christian beliefs."
Scientists have reported since the late 1990s that trace amounts
of drugs are turning up in surface waterways after being flushed into
sewage treatment plants, and in groundwater wells. They've been found
in Great Lakes tributary rivers, said Elizabeth LaPlante of the EPA's
Great Lakes office in Chicago.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recently detected
birth-control hormones, codeine, the antidepressant Prozac and other
medications in water discharged from municipal plants in Grand
Rapids, Ann Arbor and Monroe.
Scientists say the concentrations are minuscule and there's no
evidence people are being harmed. But they may be causing
reproductive, neurological and behavioral abnormalities in fish and
other aquatic wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey says.
The government is studying what might be done about drugs in
wastewater systems and whether regulations are needed, said Benjamin
Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water.
In the meantime, the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
other agencies have urged people not to flush drugs down toilets or
drains unless instructions with the drugs recommend doing so to keep
them out of the wrong hands. Only a dozen or so highly addictive
narcotics would carry that label, Grumbles said.
"The toilet shouldn't be a trash can," he said.
Instead, they suggest crushing or dissolving them in water, mixing
the liquid with cat litter or sawdust and sealing it in plastic bags,
which can be thrown in the trash. Some pharmacies are accepting
unused medicines for disposal.
"It's a very important issue and one we want to get ahead of
before it becomes a problem in the U.P.," Lindquist said.
LaPlante said the EPA gave Earth Keepers coalition a Lake Superior
stewardship award last year for its Clean Sweep collection.
"They seem to be able to reach an incredibly large number of
people, and they're incredibly committed," she said.
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