March 20 • 05:28 AM

Feds take note of woman's loss

Second look taken at common practice of flushing prescription meds down drain

March 18, 2009
TRI-CITY AREA — Like many of us, Gail St. Laurent was devastated and deeply saddened when her 72-year-old mother lost her battle with cancer last year.

Gail, 56, had been one of her primary caretakers—and watched helplessly as the disease took its toll over a two year period. A bright spot, though, was the wonderful Hospice care available, Gail says, and she took comfort in the fact that her mom was in her own home at the end of her life.

And though what happened next left Gail dumfounded, she unwittingly found a bright spot for the planet and all the creatures that walk upon it.

Gail St. Laurent with husband Randy, whose political activism helped Gail make a difference for the future of Michigan’s water quality.
It's called the Water Quality Investment Act, passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives. Proposed by Rep. Candice Miller, the measure provides $18.7 billion over a five year period for wastewater infrastructure projects and other programs aimed at improving water quality in the Great Lakes and around the country.

How does the very personal loss of a Lapeer woman's mother lead to federal water quality legislation?

Read on, you just might be surprised.

Common practice

It's common knowledge that cancer is a devastating and painful disease, often one that's hard to beat. In the case of Gail's mom—Shirley White—doctors had done all they could to prolong her life—and toward the end did all they could to keep her comfortable. Fortunately, Shirley had health insurance, so the costly pain medications and other drugs commonly prescribed to manage her condition were covered. In fact, a new shipment of $1,500 worth of medication had been delivered to Shirley's home hours before she passed away.

After her mother was gone, Gail waited for officials to clear the scene. Her heart aching from her loss, she was surprised—and dismayed—when they took each prescription bottle—including unopened vials of liquid morphine—and flushed all the contents down the toilet.

"I just had to sit there and watch them count every thing out and then flush all the meds down the toilet," she says. "I was dumfounded."

The scene was troubling in more ways than one, Gail says. Along with the thought that prescription drug residue was being introduced into the water system, it pained Gail to see such valuable resources go down the drain.

"Not only is it (the drugs) going into the water, but there were thousands of dollars dumped down the toilet in valuable medicine that could help someone else," she says.

Couldn't they be donated to a clinic, like Lapeer's Loving Hands INC or other facility that provides medical assistance to people in need, she asked.

Unfortunately, the answer was no. The officials told Gail they were required to dispose of the medicine. They also required Gail's signature on a document once disposal was complete.

The incident stuck with Gail while she mourned the loss of her mother, so much so that she mentioned it to someone who ended up doing something about it.

Crossing paths

Gail's husband Randy had long been active in politics, his name familiar from a recent bid for the 82nd District State Rep. seat. He was not active as Rep. Candice Miller's 10th District Chair.

The St. Laurents were invited to a function hosted by Miller, and though Gail was still grieving her mother's death, she decided to go. With the medication disposal incident still fresh in her memory, Gail mentioned it to one of Miller's staff members.

"The next thing I knew, Candice Miller came over to talk to me saying she was very interested in this," Gail says.

Miller's interest resulted in the Water Quality Investment Act.

"Currently, there is no uniform standard for health clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities for disposing unused medicine in a responsible manner," says a press release from Candice Miller's office. "Facilities are required by law to get rid of the medications, and have been doing so by flushing them down toilets, thus introducing levels of pollutants into waterways."

Miller says the issue has drawn national attention because even the best efforts do not completely remove pharmaceuticals from the water supply.

"The Miller Amendment would be an important first step in addressing states' concerns and correcting an ineffective and possibly hazardous method of pharmaceutical disposal."

Lasting tribute

Gail was surprised and thrilled when she learned that Miller's amendment passed. She characterizes herself as basically shy, but is gratified that when she spoke up it really made a difference.

"I am so thrilled and I don't know how I can thank Congresswoman Miller and her staff enough for this," she says. "This is for all of us, for everybody. These are our Great Lakes. Michigan is a great place to live and this is another step to make it better."

Pleased as she is, Gail says she hopes that the next step may be finding some way to recycle unused medications.

"There are people out there who need help and who don't have insurance," she says. "It could really help people. That's what life's all about."

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