Syringe Saga Experiences a Setback

UPDATE: June 15, 2016 — The L.A. Board of Supervisors voted yesterday to approve a voluntary drug and syringe takeback program at local retailers—a far cry from the mandatory program advocated for by Heal the Bay and  a coalition of environmental, consumer advocacy, and public health groups.

 The latest:

After four postponements, the ordinance was finally heard. Sadly, we got pricked by some bad news. A sweeping, mandatory, County-wide initiative that would have required all pharmaceutical manufacturers to fund a program to accept unwanted and outdated medications, sharps, and syringes at local retailers, got seriously watered down by the Board of Supervisors. In a 3-0 vote, the Board agreed to Supervisor Antonovich’s last-minute declawing of the original, tougher proposal into an experimental, voluntary education and outreach campaign with quarterly take-back events.

Due to both its lack of accountability and concerns about the availability of funding, Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis abstained from voting. We’re grateful for their support of the original ordinance, and for listening and responding to the will of the public.

We also applaud L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who spoke out in favor of the original ordinance.

Special thanks are due to Heidi Sanborn of the National Stewardship Action Council (NSAC) for leading the coalition and working hard to generate support for the mandatory take-back measure in the face of aggressive lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry.

While this weaker version of the bill is a substantial setback, there is hope: It will likely reappear (with more teeth) after November, before a new Board.

What’s next?

Medical waste contaminating our beaches and communities is a preventable problem. A mandatory take-back program is a solution. Heal the Bay doesn’t give up easily, and we will continue to work with the Sups. Kuehl, Solis, and the NSAC to keep this issue alive until it’s revisited by the Board.

For more details, check out KPCC’s and the L.A. Times’ coverage of this issue.

If you haven’t added your name to our petition supporting a mandatory drug and syringe take-back program, it’s not too late.





Mar. 21, 2016 — Big pharmaceutical companies are fighting a takeback program for needles and outdated medicines at corner pharmacies, writes staff scientist Steven Johnson

The poet John Milton once asked: “Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?”

Optimists are good at finding the silver lining in unfortunate circumstances. But there is a flipside to the phrase Milton coined in 1636. Something may seem wholly positive at first glance, only to reveal negatives upon closer inspection and the passage of time. Or as Milton might have put it: “All silver, no matter how bright, develops spots of tarnish.”

That’s how I look at the one-use hypodermic needle, which has no doubt benefited society but has also become a danger within our trash pick-up infrastructure and on our local shorelines.

Fortunately, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is taking up the issue of harmful medical waste. The Board is now mulling a proposal that would create a take-back program at corner pharmacies for used syringes, expired medication and other potential threats.

But the common-sense measure is getting pushback from the big pharmaceutical companies.

We need you to lend your voice supporting an ordinance, which asks producers to take some responsiblity for the waste they create. You can read on for more detail, or just click here to sign our petition.

Sign the petition for pharmacy take-back of syringes

The advent of the mass-produced disposable syringe in the mid-20th century can certainly be viewed as a positive when it comes to public health. These ultra-sanitary disposable devices continue to help millions of diabetics and other people dealing with medical issues.

They also help fend off the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B among drug-addicted populations and have led to the creation of affordable needle exchange programs for counties nationwide.

But what happens to all of these used syringes after their single use? At this point in their lifecycle they are collectively known as “sharps” because of the dangers they pose to waste handlers. In hospitals and other medical facilities they’re carefully disposed of…but what about the remainder on the streets and in homes?

Some 13.5 million people in the U.S. are disposing of 7.8 billion syringes annually, according to Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal estimates. Juxtapose this statistic with California state law H&SC §118286, which makes it illegal to toss opened syringes into the trash or recycling containers, and you have a conundrum. How exactly are California citizens actually supposed to dispose of this enormous quantity of needles?

The websites of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and CalRecycle are all careful to mention the dangers of sharps and make it clear not to throw them away in standard garbage bins or flush them down the toilet.

Unfortunately, practical advice about what to do with medical waste gets quite cloudy. The official language is often vague:

  • “some communities offer collection sites that accept used needles—often for free”
  • “call your local trash or public health department to find out about sharps disposal programs in your area”
  • “you can buy mail-back services which come with a sharps container and mail-back packaging to mail the container back once it is full”
  • “Explore other options”

These programs are the opposite of convenient–if they even exist in your neighborhood in the first place.

The conversation would probably end here for most of us who aren’t diabetics, do not suffer from multiple sclerosis, are not seeking increased fertility, or aren’t nursing a sick pet, for example. Not our problem!

But medical waste is a problem for all of us, as last year’s  release of sewage-related material from Hyperion demonstrated. A storm left beaches scattered with sharps and other sickening debris. Here at Heal the Bay we also find syringes at our beach and inland clean-ups, likely inappropriately discarded and washed through the stormdrain system. This medical refuse is not only unsightly but extremely dangerous for beachgoers and cleanup crews.

To address this problem, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is creating an ordinance that will put the burden of collecting used sharps (as well as other unused pharmaceutical drugs) on the producer, in this case the pharmaceutical and medical supplies companies.

The development of these take-back programs, with plans to be located in local pharmacies and other convenient areas, will be a tremendous asset to community and environmental health.

Unfortunately, the big pharmaceutical companies are already lobbying against the measure, citing cost concerns among other issues. The fact is, drug manufacturers have already designed, funded, and currently operate collection programs in Canada, Mexico, Portugal, and Brazil—all countries who pay a great deal less than Americans for their pharmaceuticals.

It should be noted that pharmaceutical companies currently have one of the highest profit margins in the U.S.—averaging about 20% and realizing billions of dollars each year. The National Stewardship Action Council estimates that an effective take-back program would only require an investment of 1 cent for every $10 in prescription drugs sold.

Please join Heal the Bay as we press for the enactment of this ordinance at the L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting on the morning of Tuesday, June 14. The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. at the Board’s Hearing Room within the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown L.A., 500 W. Temple Street in Room 381B.

Sign the petition for pharmacy take-back of syringes