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Earth Day interfaith project collects discarded drugs



The Rev. Charlie West, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Marquette, Mich., holds discarded medicines collected during an interfaith environmental cleanup project. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.  














A UMNS Report by Lilla Marigza*

April 25, 2007

It is Clean Sweep Saturday, and a woman with a grocery bag full of outdated and unwanted medicines walks toward Grace United Church in Marquette, Mich., ready to do her small part to help keep the environment clean.

Pharmacists in white lab coats stand ready to sort through her pills and liquids to make sure the discarded drugs don't end up polluting the municipal water supply.

The collection drive is one way that United Methodists across northern Michigan are taking action to protect the environment from household toxic waste.

"A part of our faith life is to take care of creation," says the Rev. Charlie West, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, which serves as a collection site for the annual environmental initiative.



More than 1 ton of outdated and unwanted medicines were collected during this year's Earth Keeper Clean Sweep
project April 21.

It's a message embraced by some 130,000 churchgoers taking part in the cleanup.

Each Earth Day weekend for the last three years, the Earth Keeper Clean Sweep project has helped people of faith and other environmentally conscious people dispose of hazardous waste. The effort is sponsored by United Methodists and eight other faith communities: Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, Baha'i, Jewish and Zen Buddhist.

The first year, 45 tons of household poisons, such as pesticides and car batteries, were collected and safely discarded. In 2006, the focus was on unwanted electronic equipment. More than 320 tons of old computers, cell phones and other "E-waste" were amassed for recycling.

This year, on April 21, volunteers turned their attention to pharmaceuticals.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that trace amounts of prescription and nonprescription medications are finding their way into streams and drinking water. The agency cites a U.S. Geological Survey study that sampled 139 streams in 30 states and found 80 percent of them contaminated with trace amounts of chemicals commonly found in prescription drugs.

"I thought it's a pretty good idea to keep our water clean," says Edith Prosen, who brought her own unneeded medicines for the cause. "Up to now, I must confess, I've been flushing them down the toilet. That's what I was told to do."

Nineteen Clean Sweep collection sites were set up across 14 counties surrounding Lake Superior, one of the world's more pristine bodies of water -- but also a place where medicinal chemicals have been detected.

Organizers estimate that Clean Sweep collected more than a ton of unusable medications -- mostly pills but also creams, cough medicines and other over-the-counter items. The drugs were to be sorted and most incinerated, with controlled substances turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.



Pharmacists sort through discarded drugs collected at Grace United Methodist Church, one of 19 collection sites in 14 counties across northern Michigan.  

Susan LaFernier is a United Methodist and the tribal council president of Michigan's Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which helps sponsor Clean Sweep. LaFernier notes that the Chippewa Native Americans of Lake Superior have been known for their stewardship of the earth since the 1600s.

"I just want to say thank you to everyone because it's everybody's responsibility to take care of the precious earth that the Lord has given us," LaFernier says.

John Perrecone, an EPA project manager in Michigan, says offering environmental awareness through churches has proved more successful than through traditional media outlets.

"(Churches) have a good distribution system that works," he says. "People trust it. The message was there, and they're motivated to come forward and take action."

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville,  Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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