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Don't Drink the Water

With prescription drug usage at an all-time high, such medications may be leaking into groundwater and posing serious health and environmental threats; Wilton is mulling how to dispose of them.

When you approach one of Wilton's many streams or ponds in the not too distant future, you might well find a pharmacist instead of a fisherman.

Wilton's Director of Environmental Affairs, Pat Sesto, spoke to the Board of Selectmen on Monday night about the exponential rise of prescription drug use in the U.S. in recent years and the associated risks to children and the environment. Sesto said she and the Conservation Commission have been aware of the potential deleterious impact of increased prescription drug usage on Wilton's environment for several years and are now working toward a town-wide initiative to collect and dispose of unused or expired medications, similar to the town's Hazardous Materials Day.

"There's definitely a reason to collect these meds both from an ecological and a social standpoint," Sesto said. "But doing so is not easy."

She explained that pharmaceuticals find their way into town groundwater in two ways, either when they are consumed and then excreted from a person's body or when they are flushed down the toilet or drain.

For years, people have been directed to dispose of excess or expired medication in this fashion. But recent studies suggest that doing so results in the drugs seeping into groundwater supplies and, since most water treatment facilities are not equipped to remove such toxins, they pose a huge risk to both a town's ecosystem and its human residents.

Sesto included some sobering studies to support her point. She said much of the earliest research on the subject has been done in Europe, where fish in certain streams began changing genders as a result of hormones from human medications that leaked into and saturated the animals' natural habitats.

Prescription drugs also pose a serious threat to human beings, since it is possible that medications could eventually start leaching into wells around town.

"We don't yet have a link between our wells [and the medications]," Sesto said. "But it wouldn't be a reach to think that's coming down the road."

Prescription drugs are more prevalent than ever, as Sesto pointed out by saying that between 1993 and 2006, the number of prescriptions in the U.S. rose 71 percent. With this prevalence comes the risk of them being misused; two million teens abused prescription drugs in 2007 alone and they have become the most popular form of substance abuse in the younger demographic because they are often readily available in large quantities.

To combat all these troubling trends, Sesto and the Conservation Commission are considering a joint collection day with New Canaan, where residents from both towns would come to dispose of any and all prescription medications they no longer use or that have expired. Sesto said two other towns, Trumbull and Monroe, held a similar event last fall and collected nearly 500 pounds of pills and medications from 134 cars.

Setting up such a day is not an easy; it requires special permits from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Consumer Protection and even the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency. The event must also be manned by several police officers, who take care to make sure the medications are properly handled, and several licensed pharmacists, who are responsible for cataloging every prescription collected.

Sesto said she envisions the event perhaps taking place at the Comstock Community Center, where residents would drive up and put their medications into a receptacle. The medications would then be taken inside by a supervising police officer, cataloged, and held over the weekend at the police station until they were picked up by licensed state officials.

Ever cognizant of costs in a tight budget year, the Selectmen questioned what the expense of such an event would be to the town and Sesto replied that there had already been several donations, including one for $1,500 and another promise from Norwalk Hospital to donate both pharmacists and waste haulers (normally around a $2,000 expense).

The event will likely be announced in the Conservation Commission's Spring newsletter and although it is being run through Wilton and New Canaan, "nobody will be turned away," Sesto said.

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