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Stopping water contamination requires new message

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Red River
Prescription drugs and household chemicals are found in many Minnesota rivers and lakes. Education initiatives around the state will encourage residents to properly dispose of old or unused prescription drugs to keep them from contaminating water.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Don't flush your old prescription drugs. They pollute the state's waters.

It's a simple point. But officials and environmental leaders concede the public has heard mixed messages over the years about what to do with pharmaceuticals and other compounds that can contaminate lakes and rivers. A new state grant program hopes to bring some clarity, helping people make the connection between the water they drink and the chemicals they put into the water.

"The general public doesn't really know," said Christine Laney, project coordinator with Fargo-Moorhead River Keepers, a group awarded one of four grants through the state Health Department. "Even some people who are doing watershed management are finding it's something they haven't heard of, kind of surprising."

Getting good information out is important, she added, because "right now it's really easy to flush it down the toilet or throw it in the garbage."

Many cities and counties collect unused prescription drugs and send them to toxic chemical incinerators. That's not always the advice people get, even from official sources.

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"We've encouraged people, for example, to dispose of their prescription drugs by flushing them down the toilet or putting them in a sealed container and disposing of them in their regular garbage and then they get put into landfill because those were the techniques we had available at that point in time," said Diane Thorson, public health director for Otter Tail County.

Thorson says a $44,000 state grant will pay a public relations firm to create a message in four west central Minnesota counties that will capture public attention. The counties will also expand their collection of old prescription drugs and household chemicals.

Other grants went to a St. Cloud group that plans to create an advertising and social media campaign and a Twin Cities organization that will target its message to Latino populations. 

Department of Health project coordinator Michele Ross says the agency plans to distribute $100,000 a year to local organizations with the funding coming through the Minnesota Clean Water Fund. That's not a lot of money, but Ross says local groups are often more efficient and effective at getting the message out.  

She says the goal is simple. 

It's about getting the word out "so that there's less improper disposal so that you don't see as high a concentration in rivers and streams and you see less impact then on aquatic ecosystems and you see lower concentrations that end up in our drinking water as well."