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How to get rid of your leftover drugs

Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center, Zumbro Valley Medical Society, the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Agency partnered Saturday for the 15th National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. The drop-off site in downtown Rochester saw a steady flow of traffic. Volunteers, from left, are Frederick Ojukwu, Taylor Weiskittel, Sue Fargo and Todd Ingram.

Catherine Ewing couldn’t find anywhere to take unneeded pain pills in 2007.

The Mayo Clinic inpatient pain service registered nurse knew simply tossing pills in the trash or down the drain wasn’t the right thing to do.

And, keeping them wasn’t an option.

"It concerns me what’s in people’s homes that’s not used and is accessible to young curious people," she said.

So, when her father died in 2007 with leftover pain medication from his battle with cancer, Ewing did what was suggested at the time. She mixed the medication with used cat litter before disposing of it.


On Saturday, she was on hand to help with a better option. She was one of many volunteers at the Mayo Clinic site for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Take Back event, which is conducted twice a year to collect unused and expired prescription medications.

The goal is to keep the drugs from causing harm to others and the environment.

In 2016, Minnesota saw 395 opioid-related deaths, an 18 percent increase from 2015.

"Opioid deaths are becoming so common in the United States that they are actually reducing our life expectancy," said Jeff Bolton, Mayo Clinic vice president.

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said overdoses and other problems related to prescription medications getting into the wrong hands is a growing concern.

"It strikes all facets of our community," he said.

As a steady stream of cars passed through the Gonda Building patient drop-off area Saturday, Beth Kangas, executive director of Zumbro Valley Medical Society, said it was evidence of growing awareness.

She said one driver who handed over his unused oxycontin pills noted he was offered $50 for them, but opted to turn the medication in for free.


"When he saw this, he knew this was the right thing to do," she said, recalling the carside conversation.

Another woman took the time to tell Kangas about her son who died from a heroin overdose, noting her appreciation for the collection efforts.

The 1,102 pounds of medication collected in four hours at the clinic site was another indicator of increased awareness.

Ewing said the countless cars that passed through the drop off site didn’t surprise her.

"I have a pretty good idea of what’s in people’s houses," she said.

As a nurse in Mayo Clinic’s Department of Anesthesia, she said pain medications have their place and are an important part of patient care when used properly. She said the key is finding a position between past practices of overprescribing and the push to not offer medication needed for pain management.

"We have to meet in the middle on this," she said.

At the same time, she sees no middle ground when it comes to unused medications.


Saturday, she had nothing to drop off because she’s made a habit of using the drop box at the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center whenever she has extra pills.

"If I have something prescribed to me and I’m done, it goes," she said, noting she’s heard people say they are reluctant to be seen dropping of pills at the city-county Government Center.

She said that’s a stigma that can be dangerous, for loved ones as well as the environment, if it leads to disposing of pills improperly. She said that instead of worrying about being seen near the detention center, people should embrace the opportunity to do the right thing.

Dionne Hart, co-president of Zumbro Valley Medical Society, said raising such awareness was a key part of Saturday’s effort, along with removing access to unused drugs.

"Our efforts collectively can save lives," said the physician of the drop-off event that also included Olmsted Medical Center staff and a proclamation by Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede.

The Olmsted County Sheriff’s Department operates a drop-off site that’s available around the clock in the entryway of the Adult Detention Center, 101 Fourth St. SE., in Rochester.

Unused or expired prescription medications can be dropped off.


Last year, 964 pounds of medications were dropped off in the box, and Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said interest is growing.

"It's a continuous increase," he said.  

Torgerson said the box is emptied daily, which requires two officers to secure items before they are eventually transported to Mankato.

Due to the staff time required to sort items, he said the box should not be used for disposing of empty bottles, supplements or vitamins. Also liquids and needles should not be placed in the box for officers’ safety.

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