Slap in the face to local hospitals

Drugs flushed down the toilet and ending up in drinking water is a growing problem nationwide. This week, New York Attorney General (and rumored gubernatorial hopeful) Andrew Cuomo went after five hospitals and nursing homes within the New York City watershed for their illegal practice of flushing drugs: O’Connor Hospital and Countryside Care Center in Delhi, Margaretville Memorial Hospital and Mountainside Residential Care Center in Margaretville, and Putnam Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Holmes. The facilities face fines of a few thousand dollars apiece and have agreed to stop the dumping.

Federal OSHA guidelines for hospitals recommend that drugs be taken to "either an incinerator or a licensed sanitary landfill for toxic wastes, as appropriate."

A press release from the AG's office calls the settlement "groundbreaking":

The agreements announced today are the first-ever settlements requiring sources of pharmaceutical releases to end this risky disposal practice.

But the Delaware County Board of Supervisors is spitting mad about the A.G.'s actions, charging in a somewhat grammar-challenged press release that Cuomo's latest ruling violates the spirit of the 1997 Memorandum of Agreement between the city and the towns in its upstate watershed:

New York City is currently negotiating to receive a new Land Acquisition Permit to acquire land in the watershed. This action against upstate healthcare institutions combined with the AG’s office actions undertaken during negotiations over the renewal of the NYC permit, the AG’s office has breeched the spirit of partnership contained in the landmark Memorandum of Agreement. In light of this breech Delaware County is fast losing incentive to continue negotiations for the renewal of the Land Acquisition Permit.

More from the Oneonta Daily Star on upstate ire:

Catskill Watershed Corp. executive director Alan Rosa said he had been working with the four facilities to develop shared methods of correctly disposing of pharmaceuticals and had scheduled a meeting Jan. 29.

"If there is a problem out there, let's deal with it and see if there is a better way," Rosa said. "Get everyone at the table. But this just stinks.

"Why would you do this to some of the poorest health care facilities in the nation?" Rosa continued. "I am absolutely appalled by the whole thing."

Another Daily Star article points out that three other facilities refused to settle with the A.G.'s office. No word on whether they face further legal action.

Catskill Watershed Corp. Executive Director Alan Rosa said three other Delaware County facilities, including Delaware Valley Hospital in Walton, Robinson Terrace in Stamford and Kirkside Adult Home in Roxbury, refused to sign consent orders.

More coverage appears in the New York Times blogs and New York Magazine.

Despite Cuomo's hamfisted and punitive approach, getting hospitals to agree to stop flushing drugs is probably a good thing. But it's not a quick fix for the problem. Ordinary citizens flush drugs as well. Even if you don't flush drugs directly, HuffPo's Susan Kim points out, plenty of the pharmaceuticals you take end up in the toilet one way or another. (And then there are acts of God. Margaretville folks, any guesses as to what ended up in the East Branch after the flood of '96?)

What we really need, as this Medical News Today story points out, is better wastewater treatment.