A Perfect Prescription

Students and a water company team up on a drug collection that helps protect water supplies and is rapidly spreading across the nation.
A Perfect Prescription

With a program inspired by the passion and ingenuity of a team of high school students, Illinois American Water has been honored for its efforts to involve the public in an initiative aimed at keeping medications and drugs out of the state's water supply.

Illinois American Water, a subsidiary of American Water, was awarded the American Water Works Association's 2011 Communications Achievement Award for its role in spreading the word about the Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal Program launched by environmental science students at Pontiac (Ill.) Township High School.

As the owner of systems serving 1.2 million people in 126 communities, Illinois American Water has a vested stake in the state's water quality, according to spokeswoman Karen Cotton: "The less contaminants in the water, the easier it is to treat."

Students in the forefront

Faced with growing concern over traces of medications and drugs found in water supplies, experts at American Water's national laboratory in Belleville, Ill., turned their attention several years ago to possible testing and reporting procedures for such contaminants.

Cotton, external affairs manager at Illinois American Water, knew of the company's interest in the subject when Tim Tuley, lead operator at the company's system in Pontiac, told her about a unique program started by a group of ecology students at Pontiac Township High School. Soon after speaking with Tuley in early 2008, she heard a radio report on the program.

Cotton's interest was piqued, and she called environmental science teacher Paul Ritter to learn more about the program, now known as P2D2. Cotton and Tuley went to the school for a presentation, where the teacher told them his students had investigated the issue after his wife came to him one evening with a handful of old prescriptions and asked about the proper way to get rid of them. Ritter didn't have an immediate answer, but he decided the question would be a good one to pose to his students.

The students tackled the challenge with vigor and found that a U.S. Geological Survey study of more than 100 waterways had revealed the presence of pharmaceuticals ranging from antibiotics, anti-depressants and birth control pills to painkillers, tranquilizers and cholesterol-lowering compounds.

Reaching out for help

They learned that there were no standards for testing or treating for such contaminants and that the public had long been advised to dispose of old medicines by flushing them down a toilet or pouring them down a drain. However, the discovery of medications in surface and groundwater sources had led to a consensus that incineration was safer.

When Cotton asked whether her company could support the high school's program, she found that the students had already contacted a local Illinois American Water official as a resource for their research. She also learned the students had contacted local pharmacies and the police, asking them to allow local residents to return unused medications for proper disposal.

At about the same time, students in an Illinois Studies class at the school began writing letters to inform public officials about the problem and ask them to address the issue. Since then, music students have written and performed songs for the program.

Ritter welcomed the support of Illinois American Water and began coordinating efforts with the company. He says the company's involvement helped the P2D2 program spread rapidly across Illinois and then beyond the state's borders. "They are a partner in this, and they have been responsible for helping the program grow," says Ritter. "These people know water better than anyone else, and they have dedicated not only money, but the manpower necessary to help the program grow the way it has."

Branching out

Ritter, who was named the National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Environmental Educator of the Year in 2011, credits his students' enthusiasm and innovation for much of the success of P2D2, but he is just as quick to acknowledge the support of people outside the classroom. Even before Illinois American Water got involved, the businesses and police officials the students reached out to were strong supporters: "Everyone involved came in and said they wanted to be part of this."

As of May, Illinois American Water had provided funding for the installation of drop boxes in 28 communities. The drop boxes, similar to street-side mailboxes or library book return boxes, are installed at police stations for legal and security purposes. Because some drugs turned in may be
controlled substances, they must be handled and disposed of by legal authorities.

Illinois American Water has used bill inserts to inform customers about the risks of improperly disposed drugs and has created posters for display in public buildings and other high-visibility areas. The company has also sponsored public service announcements and has used its website to inform customers.

Cotton says the company also puts considerable effort into kick-off events that introduce the program to new communities: "We involve the mayors, the local legislators and the local students involved in P2D2," she says. "We try to attract a lot of attention."

Ounce of prevention

Randolph Pankiewicz, water and environmental compliance manager for Illinois American Water, works closely with Cotton and has traveled to all corners of the state with her to help deliver the boxes and help local officials set up their dropoff programs. He says that, in many ways, the program is a preventive measure.

"There are no regulations now for the compounds we're talking about," Pankiewicz says. "And the levels they have detected are extremely low — some in the parts per trillion range." But there is no guarantee that the levels will stay that low, and the simplest solution is to keep the medications out of the water system, he says.

Cotton often finds pent-up demand even before drop boxes are installed in a new community: "We have people who have been holding on to their old medications waiting for the program to come to their system." The program has become so popular that the company has even helped several communities where it doesn't operate the water system.

Besides working with the students, Cotton is part of the Illinois EPA Medication Education Disposal Solutions (MEDS) Action Committee and chairs the subcommittee tasked with producing fact sheets, PSAs, posters and FAQs, as well as maintaining a speakers bureau.

The P2D2 program has spread beyond Illinois thanks to the company and Ritter's students. Cotton says most of American Water's other 18 state subsidiaries have picked up on the program, even if only to sponsor a single-day event.

As the National Director of P2D2, Ritter has talked about the program in a number of other states and even traveled to Spain with a delegation of students for one speaking engagement. At the P2D2 website, the organizers keep track as more states get involved: the total was up to 19 as of last spring.

Earning recognition

The Pontiac civics students also saw their efforts bear fruit in 2011 when Illinois lawmakers passed legislation to levy an additional fee for drug-related crimes to fund a statewide drug disposal program. Students involved in Mississippi's P2D2 program have secured legislation to help take their effort statewide.

At the P2D2 website, the program's success is measured in many ways, from the number of students, schools and states involved to the volume of drugs collected. The latest count put the collections at more than 134,000 pounds of medications.

The results have been so impressive that Ritter and a team of students (including a Wisconsin girl who launched P2D2 in that state) were given an expenses-paid trip to Sweden in June to represent the United States as part of the Volvo Adventure program, an international program to recognize the efforts of young people to improve or protect the environment. Twelve international teams have been invited to present their projects and vie for the top three awards. All projects will be published and presented to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Besides protecting the water supply in states where P2D2 has been adopted, organizers believe that by getting unneeded drugs out of people's homes, they are making a dent in the illicit use of prescription drugs. And with many police departments accepting all substances "no questions asked," the boxes have become a tool for combating illegal drug use, as well.


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