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Pharma-waste: Costly Pollution or Untapped Resource?

3p Contributor | Thursday September 1st, 2011 | 3 Comments

By Erika Kimball, RN

Pharmaceutical waste is a big, expensive problem. Americans dispose of an estimated $1 billion worth of unused medications annually. Doing so wastes precious health resources, and pollutes the environment too. A study in 2008 found the presence of pharmaceuticals in the water supply of 24 major municipalities nationwide.

As legislators push for stronger regulation including extended product responsibility for drug makers, the truth is that Big Pharma is big business that depends on throughput for profits. If you don’t believe me, count the number of drug commercials you see in a 15-minute daytime television viewing. Global pharmaceutical sales were forecasted at $825 billion last year. Pharmaceutical waste is viewed as an unfortunate bi-product of a profitable, innovative, and necessary industry. But while some see an unfortunate bi-product, others see an untapped resource.

Read a news article about pharma-waste and you’ll likely read about looming regulation, environmental contamination, and the fight over who should foot the bill for cleanup.  But when Americans throw away $1Billion worth of meds annually, let us note that there is a billion dollars in the garbage can.  Knowing that pharmaceuticals now lace our water supply, does anyone else taste the slightest hint of money with each refreshing drink?  As American health care expenditures continue to grow, who will plug this huge leak in the system?

Public health advocates and business investors may have something to learn from Anesthesia gas collection company Blue Zone who has proven that pharmaceutical waste is not only un-necessary, but represents unmet profit potential.

Anesthesia gases are wonderful and useful drugs that keep patients sleeping through invasive procedures.  The most commonly used inhaled anesthetics include nitrous oxide and three halogenated agents.  A patient only inhales about 5% of the anesthesia gas supplied to them during a procedure.  The remainder flows through the delivery system and is then quickly exhausted out of the hospital and into the atmosphere.  There it remains, virtually unchanged for up to 20 years, as a potent greenhouse gas and air pollutant.

The climate change impact potential of these gases range from 300 to 3700 times that of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, we know the risks posed by chronic exposure to these drugs, but there is little information regarding risks posed by the long-term presence of these chemicals in the environment. Any wholesale release of toxic chemicals should be illegal, but the practice of venting anesthesia gases into our local atmosphere goes unchecked everyday.

Despite lack of regulation, innovators Blue Zone Technologies and Anesthesia Gas Reclamation, LLC have created filters that capture anesthesia gas from exhaust fans, curbing air pollution.  Blue Zone’s proprietary technology goes further, distilling collected anesthetics back into their original agents, offering a nearly closed loop delivery system. This technology represents one of the first financially viable solutions to the growing problem of pharmaceutical waste in the environment. As the company is now registered as a generic anesthesia manufacturer in both Canada and the United States, Blue Zone promises a solution that generates pharmaceutical industry profits. The company is poised to literally collect millions of dollars from the operating room exhaust fan.

Pharmaceuticals are a new reality in nature, poisoning natural resources and wildlife. Be certain that they are poisoning you and I as well. Fortunately Blue Zone is changing the image of pharmaceutical waste from liability to asset. Hopefully enterprising young chemists are following the company’s lead and developing new technology that stops the flow of medications into the environment while collecting billions of dollars from the garbage can.

**Erika Kimball is a Registered Nurse and a Sustainable Business Professional dedicated to minimizing the environmental impacts of the health care industry.  She is the founder and co-chair of the Green Team at California Pacific Medical Center and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.


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  • Stephen

    I read an article on the military’s relationship to pharmaceuticals, because they are the largest buyer of drugs and need to stockpile millions of $$ worth in case of emergency, they have done extensive studies lasting 10-15 years for some drugs. In most cases, they found that drugs would last at least 3-5 times as long as the expiration stated on the product (in their effects on people). As a result, they warehouse meds for many years longer than the packaging insert suggests.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brandt-Hardin/1380860155 Brandt Hardin

    Big Pharma is the REAL drug cartel in North America. Their overmedicating of the American public through obscene advertising leads to nearly 100,000 deaths per year! Prescription drugs are more dangerous than any felony drug substance in the world including heroin, cocaine and even alcohol combined. Read about this issue and what’s killing people at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/07/illustration-friday-800-milligrams.html

  • Anglish

    Last paragraph in the article: “Be certain that they are poisoning you and I as well.”

    They certainly not “poisoning you and I” although they are certainly “poisoning you and me.”

    Nothing is ever poisoning I.

    You and I could say that they are poisoning you and me, but you and I would never say that “you and me” would ever say that they were “poisoning you and I.”

    Do you know what I am saying?