Retired Banker Invests In Plan To Protect Drinking Water

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Armed with mounting evidence that the problem of improperly discarded prescription drugs has reached new depths—namely, the freshwater aquifer that lies beneath Long Island’s soil, contaminating drinking water and endangering native marine life—clean water advocates are now praising one of their own for taking action to help turn the tide.

Thomas McAbee, a retired banker from Rochester who moved to Southampton Village in January along with his wife, Olga, a neurologist at Southampton Hospital, said he has always been interested in protecting the quality of drinking water, regardless of where he has lived. But his recent move to the East End, coupled with his newfound free time, have only intensified that passion.

And it was because of his passion, Mr. McAbee explained, that he stumbled across an emerging danger to local drinking water supplies: the contamination of wells by antibiotics and other medications that have been flushed down toilets and washed down sinks.

In an attempt to curb the pollution, Mr. McAbee created the Lloyd Magothy Water Trust, a nonprofit organization that strives to place industrial-size prescription drug take-back receptacles in pharmacies and law enforcement agency offices across Long Island. Mr. McAbee, who named his foundation after the two most prominent Long Island aquifers—the Lloyd and Magothy aquifers—hopes to have his bins installed in more than 500 pharmacies and in every police station on the island over the next few years, if he can secure enough grant money and private donations to do so.

His idea already has been well-received, as dozens of public officials and lawmakers have sent Mr. McAbee letters of support. Within the next month, the Southampton Village Police Department headquarters on Windmill Lane will feature the first such receptacle.

“I showed the first one to [Suffolk County Legislators] Jay Schneiderman and Al Krupski—they were wowed,” Mr. McAbee said. “They asked me to present the receptacle to the Suffolk County Environmental Committee in October, which may help the idea gain some traction.”

Mr. McAbee said he was inspired to take action after witnessing the success of similar drug take-back events across the country, including a local effort organized by Bob Grisnik, owner of Southrifty Drug in Southampton Village. Twice a year, Mr. Grisnik encourages customers to drop off their unused and expired prescription drugs so they can be disposed of properly.

“I’ve been doing take-back programs since we pushed for them to be legal in 2010,” said Mr. Grisnik, who enlisted the help of Village Police in order to accept controlled substances. “At the very first one, we took in about 1,100 bottles of prescriptions.

“We take all the pharmaceuticals—1,200 pounds at my last event—seal them up in a bag, and take them down to an incinerator,” he continued. “Instead of contaminating water, we turn the pills into energy.”

But even Mr. Grisnik acknowledges that Mr. McAbee has taken his program to the next level, offering a more consumer-convenient solution to what has evolved into a serious problem. “Now you don’t have to wait until we have the special take-back days [to drop off your expired prescription drugs],” Mr. Grisnik said.

Still, it has not been all smooth sailing for the Lloyd Magothy Water Trust.

In particular, Mr. McAbee met resistance from a 43-year-old drug law, called the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, that closely regulates who can distribute controlled substances. The law states that only physicians registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency can handle such medications, and it fails to account for the unused pills. According to the law, unwanted controlled substances cannot be transferred to anyone except law enforcement officers or the DEA itself; in other words, not even a pharmacist can accept old medications.

The same law encourages residents to flush their old pills down the toilet, keep them indefinitely, or contact a DEA agent and make arrangements to have them picked up for disposal.

And even though President Obama signed the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010, allowing for collection receptacles in retail pharmacies, as well as hospitals, doctor offices and veterinary hospitals, the DEA has yet to finalize the regulations for the receptacles, forcing Mr. McAbee to walk a fine line. Receptacles that are placed in retail pharmacies must clearly state controlled substances cannot be left in the bins; only the ones kept in police stations can accept those types of medications.

Mr. McAbee, however, remains hopeful that once the DEA regulations are set, the ban will at least be lifted for pharmacies, though they will probably remain in place in hospitals and doctor offices for security reasons.

The issue of pharmaceuticals entering the water supply hit particularly close to home when Mr. McAbee learned that the Suffolk County Water Authority had to shut down a private well in Montauk in 2012 because of elevated levels of ibuprofen, Naproxen and other medications—most of which are used to treat bipolar disorder, epilepsy, anxiety and high cholesterol. In fact, the SCWA had to shut down a second well on the East End, one located in Peconic, for the same reason, as well as 13 other wells in other parts of the county.

Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister agrees with Mr. McAbee’s assessment of the threat, saying “pharmaceuticals in our waters are a pretty significant emerging issue, especially with an aging population taking even more medications.”

Mr. McAllister added: “Seventy to 80 percent of Suffolk County is septic, with the liquids getting released into seepage pits, which makes its way into groundwater. There is no dilution of these pharmaceuticals.”

Mr. McAllister pointed to a recent study completed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, called “Drugging Our Waters,” which states that throughout the nation, biologists are witnessing major disruptions in male fish and frog populations, with hormonal medications causing deformities and increased incidents of transgendering. According to the study, more than 200 species are known to have experienced adverse reactions to endocrine disruptors, such as birth control pills. The study paints a grim picture, estimating that Americans fill more than three billion prescriptions a year, with 10 million women taking birth control pills.

“This is affecting our fish populations massively,” Mr. McAllister said. “We don’t have people out there testing striped bass male populations every week, but if they are all turning female, our fishing industry can’t possibly be sustainable.”

Both Mr. McAllister and Mr. McAbee laid out the two fairly obvious ways the drugs are reaching the water supply: they are being released into the groundwater in human urine, which cannot be avoided, or they are being purposely flushed.

“A majority of the issue is that people take too many pills and what doesn’t get absorbed is being flushed by way of waste,” Mr. McAbee said. “But there are so many people out there that directly flush old or excess medications and that, that we can fix.”

Their fight has not been helped by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which, as recently as February, advised people to dispose of 31 different types of drugs by either flushing them or dumping them down a sink, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not want any medications disposed of in this manner.

“They do that in the interest of risk management,” Mr. McAbee said, referring to the FDA policy. “The FDA would rather subject the environment to risk than people. It is just a bad recommendation.”

But if all goes as planned, Mr. McAbee and his supporters hope that flushing medications will be a thing of the past.

“A concept like this is abstract to people, and while marginal in its immediate impact, can be crucial in dealing with our problem,” Mr. McAllister said of the program being rolled out by Mr. McAbee. “Good for him—we need to keep an eye on these things.”

Mr. McAbee is asking anyone interested in supporting the Lloyd Magothy Water Trust, financially or otherwise, to email him at LloydMagothy@gmail.com.

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