WATERLOO • This small town, known for its rolling farms and German polka band, wants your drugs.
Valium. Vicodin. Percocet. Big red pills. Little blue pills. You name it, Waterloo wants it.
"No questions asked," says Mayor Tom Smith. "Just give it to us."
Smith wants to get unwanted drugs out of suburban medicine cabinets for a noble reason: He worries that leftover prescription drugs pollute the water supply or get into the hands of experimental teenagers.
"They're either washed down the drain or snuck out of the house by young kids," Smith said.
So Waterloo has adopted a drug disposal program that lets anyone throw unwanted medicine - from antidepressants to birth control pills - into a box at the police station.
The permanent, 24-hour-a-day municipal program is the first of its kind in the St. Louis region, according to Karen Cotton, a spokeswoman for Illinois American Water. Other towns, including O'Fallon, Mo., and St. Charles, have recently had one-day drug collection programs.
"People have been told for years to flush their old medications," Cotton said. "We don't want them to do that."
A 2008 Associated Press investigation showed that drinking water samples throughout the country were laced with small traces of antidepressants, antibiotics, anti-seizure drugs, hormones and painkillers. Scientists say there is currently no effective way to remove pharmaceuticals from waste water - and they worry that the drug exposure could cause reproductive defects in fish, among other problems.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency says "disposal of unused or unwanted pharmaceuticals is an emerging and complex environmental issue."
The state agency urges the public to take unused pharmaceuticals to a collection program or household hazardous waste collection event.
Smith said he learned about the problem when he was traveling through Arkansas.
"I read about a program they had down there and thought we ought to do it here," Smith said.
Studies show that consumers often purchase pharmaceuticals in large quantities. Often, the prescriptions are only partially used.
Waterloo has partnered with the Illinois-based Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal Program - or P2D2 - and American Water, which supplies water to St. Louis and St. Charles counties, as well as St. Clair, Madison, and Monroe counties in Illinois.
Authorities have placed a collection box in the lobby of the Waterloo Police Department, where residents can empty their medicine cabinet of prescription and over-the-counter drugs 24 hours a day. The drugs are then incinerated. Even illegal narcotics will be accepted.
"This is being treated as unwanted evidence," Smith said. "So, if you have someone who has a drug problem and wants to get off it, they can drop it off."
The program, which city leaders say comes with minimal costs, started Thursday.
In 2008, the nonprofit Area Resources for Community and Human Services received a federal grant for a yearlong drug take-back program and study at area Schnucks stores. The program's report said that pills dating as far back as 1970 were returned.
"Many family members returned large quantities of medications after a death," the report stated. "Often their loved one had died from a medical condition and no instructions had been given regarding what to do with the medication."
A recent take-back program in San Francisco found the average household had 2.7 pounds of unwanted or expired drugs, according to another study.
Paul Ritter, the P2D2 program coordinator, said he hopes other area cities will follow Waterloo's lead. Ritter, a high school teacher in Pontiac, Ill., started the program with students as a way to make a global difference.
So far, the group has taken in more than 95,000 pounds of drugs, according to p2d2program.org.
"It's my life's mission," Ritter said. "I want to make a difference everywhere."