In most homes, children are kept out of medicine cabinets to protect them from the dangers of chemicals in medications. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s (IISG) latest product, The Medicine Chest, invites high school students to metaphorically open up those doors and investigate what makes those chemicals harmful to people, pets, and the environment when improperly disposed.
“The new curriculum collection gives educators an instructional tool to create an innovative service-learning experience for their students, while tackling an important environmental and human health concern,” said IISG Associate Director for Education Robin Goettel, who, along with Terri Hallesy, IISG education specialist, helped design this resource. “Through involvement in this project, students serve as agents for change, educating their communities about action steps they can take to reduce harm to aquatic ecosystems from improper disposal of unwanted medicines.”
This resource is one of a handful of measures IISG is taking in response to the growing problem of pharmaceuticals ending up in local waterways. For example, a 2008 Associate Press investigation found low levels of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas.
When medicines expire, people often flush them down the toilet, but wastewater treatment plants are not designed to treat these chemicals. In addition to showing up in drinking water, medications can harm fish and aquatic wildlife. On the other hand, disposing of medicines in the trash can risk leakage from poorly-designed landfills.
One way the curriculum seeks to get students involved in their communities is through active involvement with the Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal Program (P2D2)—a multidisciplinary, service-learning approach to the issue of unsafe disposal. “The P2D2 Program was the impetus and serves as the centerpiece for this curriculum collection,” Goettel said.
Created by Pontiac High School ecology teacher Paul Ritter, the program encourages teachers from various subject to involve their students with this issue and provides lesson plans for environmental science, civics, music, art, language arts, and foreign language.
According to Goettel, a wide range of student projects—billboards, eco-poems, songs, collection boxes, artwork, and student presentations—have sparked community interest, understanding, and action. The P2D2 program also encourages and provides tips for building community partnerships, organizing festivals, and planning collection events.
Many of these projects are described in The Medicine Chest, which also provides useful supplemental resources, including science-based research, fact sheets, and classroom activities.
By rallying students for the cause, Goettel hopes to address another problem—prescription drug abuse. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, nearly one out of ten high school seniors admits to abusing powerful prescription painkillers and 40 percent of teens and an almost equal number of their parents [falsely] think abusing prescription painkillers is safer than abusing ‘street’ drugs.
“Through this multi-faceted, community-based service-learning program, youth will be empowered to take action that will serve as a catalyst to help reduce teenage drug abuse,” Goettel said. “The students have the capability to learn the content and put their knowledge into community action.”