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MINNEAPOLIS — In a frustrating quirk in government policy, the most tightly controlled drugs — like painkilling narcotics prone to abuse — are the ones that most often elude environmental regulation when they become waste.
Federal narcotics regulators impose strict rules meant to keep controlled pharmaceuticals out of the wrong hands. Yet those rules also make these drugs nearly impossible to handle safely as waste, say hospital environmental administrators.
The problem is huge, because more than 365 medicines are controlled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — almost 12% of all prescriptions, the agency says. They include widely used narcotics, stimulants, depressants and steroids — drugs like codeine, morphine, oxycodone, diazepam (often sold as Valium) and methylphenidate (often sold as Ritalin).
At Abbott Northwestern Hospital here, nurse Keri Osborne recently was opening a locked room at a spine surgery unit, where a machine must check her fingerprints before she pours unused controlled drugs into the sink.
A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.
To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe.
But the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.