Message from the Interim Health Officer for Los Angeles County
Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, MD, MPH
Prescription and non-prescription drugs play a critical role in treating diseases and saving lives. However, unused and expired medications must be properly discarded so that they do not pose a risk to others. According to the National Community Pharmacists Association, an estimated 200 million pounds of unused or expired prescription drugs are stored in medicine cabinets across America. This situation provides easy access and an opportunity for the abuse of these medications by others for whom they were not intended.
In LA County from 2000 to 2009, there were 8,265 drug-related deaths. Public health statistics show that 61 percent of those deaths involved a commonly abused prescription or over-the-counter drug. Of note, nearly 75 percent of residents who misuse prescription drugs obtain them from relatives or friends. Deaths and illnesses caused by the abuse of prescription opioids are of national concern. The number of deaths each year from prescription opioids is now greater than the deaths from heroin, cocaine, and benzodiazepine drugs combined.
It is also very important that needles, syringes, lancets, and other medical products are disposed of properly. While the use and disposal of these items is closely regulated in healthcare facilities, there is no regulatory oversight of their use in the home. Studies show that these items are routinely placed into the trash. Improper disposal practices may result in needlestick and other injuries that can expose others to bloodborne illnesses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV.
Many residents are unsure of safe disposal methods, and proper disposal services are limited.
These situations represent a significant public health problem. There is an opportunity for LA County to implement additional disposal options that will protect the health and safety of our residents. The Board of Supervisors recently passed a motion directing the Pharmaceutical Working Group, made up of several County departments, to draft an Extended Producer Responsibility ordinance. In the proposed ordinance, manufacturers and producers would develop and fund convenient collection services for LA County residents.
The principle behind the ordinance is to protect public health and assure public safety. Safe drug and sharps disposal is an important social need that requires a permanent and sustainable solution. The Pharmaceutical Working Group is reaching out to the producers of drugs, needles, syringes and other medical products as well as stakeholders in the community to gather suggestions and concerns about drafting such an ordinance. After this information has been collected, the group will draft an ordinance, share this for further comment, and then provide this to the Board of Supervisors for its consideration.