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What happens to unused pain pills? This NC nursing home wants you to safely destroy them.

The life and death of Caleb Mehlman

Caleb Mehlman, described by his mother and best friend as big-hearted, charismatic, and smart, was a graduate of Leesville Road High School. He passed away on December 19, 2017, from a lethal combination of Xanax, Methadone, and alcohol.
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Caleb Mehlman, described by his mother and best friend as big-hearted, charismatic, and smart, was a graduate of Leesville Road High School. He passed away on December 19, 2017, from a lethal combination of Xanax, Methadone, and alcohol.

It’s a common story: A senior citizen recovering from an injury gets discharged from a hospital or rehabilitation center and is sent home with pain medication.

But what happens to any unused pills, including powerful painkillers?

Drugs flushed down the toilet can end up in the ocean, where aquatic life consumes them. If drugs are thrown in the trash, pets can find them.

Leaving painkillers in a medicine cabinet can be dangerous, too, as the opioid epidemic continues to spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 27 percent of people who regularly abuse prescription opioids use their own, while 49 percent get the drugs from a friend or relative.

A family-run senior care facility in the Triangle is working to reverse this storyline.

Hillcrest Convalescent Center, with locations in Raleigh, Durham and Morrisville, is providing free at-home drug-disposal kits to patients being discharged — and to any adult who asks for them.

“It makes me feel kind of emotional just to talk about it,” said Hillcrest CEO Ted Smith, whose grandfather helped open the business in 1951. “I run a nursing home, so I get to help a few folks within my community. But this, I think, has the potential to help lots of people.”

Hillcrest partnered with Verde Technologies earlier this year to provide the kits, called Deterra. Each kit contains a bag filled with a charcoal chemical pod. When warm water and pills are added to the bag, the charcoal compound dissolves the drugs into a non-toxic substance. The whole package is biodegradable and can be thrown in the trash.

As someone who has witnessed drug addiction in his own family, Smith said he wants to help keep his patients and their relatives from going down the same path.

“When I realized this is affecting communities near where I live, I decided we needed to get this up and running as quickly as we could,” Smith said.

The rate of opioid-related deaths in North Carolina has been higher than the national rate for almost two decades, according to the National Institute of Health. In 2016, 5.4 people per 100,000 died of an overdose in North Carolina, compared with the national rate of 3.3 per 100,000.

Smith said some people have been “pleasantly surprised” that Hillcrest is supplying a way to get rid of unused prescriptions.

Senior citizens are being prescribed more drugs than ever. People between the ages of 65 and 69 take an average of 15 prescriptions a day, and that number only goes up with age, according to The American Association of Consultant Pharmacists.

Medicine drop-off programs at specific locations can be inconvenient, and Smith said many of his patients don’t know what to do with their drugs if they can’t flush them or throw them away.

“It’s not by any means the whole solution,” Smith said of the drug disposal kits. “But I think every one of us needs to think hard about how to make this problem go away. And if we’ve done our little part to do that, that’s great.”

Drug disposal products are now available at pharmacies and doctors’ offices all over the country. DisposeRx, a Southern Pines-based company, distributes a powder that turns pills and water into a biodegradable, unusable goo, is sold at Walmart pharmacies and other locations.

Deterra can also be purchased at Walmart pharmacies and from online retailers for between $10 and $20.

Anyone 18 or older can order Deterra from Hillcrest online at hillcrestnc.com/det. Or they can visit the company’s four locations:

Hillcrest Durham: 1417 W. Pettigrew St.

Hillcrest Raleigh: 3830 Blue Ridge Road

Hillcrest Outpatient Therapy & Wellness: 4215 University Drive Suite B2, Durham

Hillcrest Home Health of the Triangle: 1000 Bearcat Way, Morrisville

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