Prescription Painkillers: Round-Up and Reactions

A month ago, we released a set of stories on prescription drug abuse in Washington state, the result of a six-month investigation by Carol Smith into the roots of the epidemic, the cost to human life, and the possible solutions. Since then, readers and viewers have shared their reactions, and with Whitney Houston's death, the dangers of prescription drugs hit the mainstream news cycle.

The Storify round-up and reactions begin below the fold.

Robert McClure's picture

New studies: Toxic asphalt sealants threaten kids, cause air pollution

When you think of pollution, you might picture an industrial center like Camden, N.J., or Jersey City. But new research shows that when it comes to a potent class of cancer-causing toxic chemicals, many American parking lots are a lot worse.

New studies paint an increasingly alarming picture – particularly for young children – about how these chemicals are being spread across big swaths of American cities and suburbs by what may seem an unlikely source – a type of asphalt sealer. These sealants are derived from an industrial waste, coal tar.

Four new studies announced this week further implicate coal tar-based asphalt sealants as likely health risks.  The creosote-like material typically is sprayed onto parking lots and driveways in an effort to preserve the asphalt. It also gives the pavement a dark black coloring that many people find attractive.

Coal tar is a byproduct of the steelmaking industry. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that it would not be classified as a hazardous waste, even though it met the characteristics of one, because it could be recycled for uses including coating asphalt. That meant steel mills didn’t have to pay for costly landfilling or incineration of the waste.

 Only in recent years have scientists discovered the ill effects of this practice.

Coal tar sealants are used most heavily in the eastern United States, but have been used in all 50 states until Washington State banned the products last year as a result of reporting by InvestigateWest. More than a dozen local governments, including Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, also have banned the coal tar sealants in favor of the other major type of sealant, which is asphalt-based.

Carol Smith's picture

Legislature seeks Rx to discourage pharmacy robberies

Bill McNary smooths his white coat and steps out from behind the high counter where he presides over medications dispensed at the Maple Leaf Pharmacy in a quiet residential neighborhood of north Seattle. He scans the few customers who are browsing the aisles full of Ace bandages, aspirin and assorted other sundries for life’s aches and pains.

These days, even the most benign-looking customer could be a deadly threat. Worried about the kinds of robberies McNary, co-workers, and customers have experienced, pharmacists across Washington are seeking changes in state law.

In December, 2009, a young man who McNary said looked “normal enough” strolled into the pharmacy, glanced around, bought a Chapstick, which gave him a view over the counter, and left. When he came back a few hours later, the store was packed with customers waiting for flu shots. He was waving a gun.

The man, Jacob Shook, burst behind the counter and overpowered one pharmacy technician, knocking her to ground.

Technician Geraldine Crews whipped around, phone in hand, as her co-worker flew to the floor. She saw the glint of a gun barrel and hit the ground herself.

“He jerked me up, and slapped me with the gun,” she said. “He got angry. He said, ‘Do you know what Oxy is?’ ” She knew that OxyContin, a powerful pain pill that acts like heroin, sells for upwards of $80 a pill on the street. She also knew that people addicted to it can be desperate.

“Here – take it all and go,” she remembers telling him. She was terrified that if she didn’t, he’d turn the gun on customers.

“This place was full of people -- there was a five- or six-year-old little boy with his parents here,” she said. “I’m sure it gave that little boy nightmares.”

Robert McClure's picture

Developers to Legislature: Save us from Puget Sound stormwater runoff rules

Rain gardens built in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood failed to soak up the water.
Rita Hibbard/InvestigateWest

Just as state environmental officials are getting close to issuing long-awaited, court-ordered rules to rein in the largest source of toxic pollution of Puget Sound, developers and business interests are appealing to the Legislature to delay the process or make it entirely voluntary.

Members of the public have until Friday to tell Department of Ecology officials their views about controlling polluted rainwater runoff, which fouls waterways statewide.  It’s an effort that would take years under Ecology’s current proposal – but that could get delayed even more under legislation pushed by the Association of Washington Business, the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Washington Association of Cities.

At issue is the toxic mix that washes off roads, parking lots and other hard surfaces in the rain, carrying with it the detritus of modern life: oil, grease, pet waste and metals such as copper, which can kill salmon, along with myriad other pollutants.

Ecology has calculated that the runoff is the leading source of toxic pollution of Puget Sound, and it’s an extremely common reason why water bodies in Washington are in violation of the Clean Water Act. It’s also a leading reason for closing shellfish beds and it can make swimmers sick.

The agency’s proposed rules contemplate controlling the polluted stormwater by changing development codes in 110 local governments in Washington so that the landscape does a better job of slurping up the dirty rainwater before it reaches waterways.

Carol Smith's picture

Some solutions for ending the prescription drug epidemic

A mother who lost her son. A cop who lost his career. A family who lost their home. These are just a few of the devastating human costs we uncovered in the course of delving into the prescription painkiller epidemic that grips Washington state. Their stories are shocking, but not rare.

While Washington has just passed the strictest state law in the country to try to curb the epidemic, and while we have launched a number of innovative pilot programs here, the experts we spoke with, including addicts themselves, said there is still much work to be done before we can remove ourselves from the list of worst states for prescription drug deaths.

Some of the challenges that remain

  • • Washington's Prescription Monitoring Program, a step in the right direction, still lacks permanent funding, and clinicians are not required to consult it before prescribing narcotic pain medication. Nor is the data shared, yet, with licensing agencies, or with neighboring states along the corridors where prescription drugs are trafficked.
  • • Washington's emergency rooms, which have long been a place where people hooked on prescription painkillers have sought drugs to feed their habits, have no way to systematically share data across the state about multiple users of the ER.
  • • Insurance companies don’t yet provide enough coverage for alternative forms of pain treatment, including physical therapy, counseling, acupuncture, massage, or other alternatives.
Carol Smith's picture

A Cop Battles Addiction

Editor's Note: Sean Riley will be on KCTS 9 Connects with Enrique Cerna tonight to talk about prescription drug abuse. Watch the Preview.

Sean Riley, a 20-year homicide cop, was working an elder abuse case in 1999 in Kirkland, when he discovered one of the “perks” of his investigation.

“I’d been having a tough year,” he said. He’d gone through a divorce and had started drinking heavily. Then a gym injury led to a prescription for Vicodin. He started bumming prescriptions off doctors at the institutions where he was doing his investigations.

One pill led to another, and before long he was popping 20 to 30 a day. “I learned to chew pills to get the drug into my system faster,” he said.

By 2005, Riley was also taking increasing amounts of Percoset, morphine and Oxycontin. Eventually, a drug test busted him, and his own police chief turned him in to authorities.

Riley still figured he could beat the charges. “I know how to build cases,” he said. He shrugs now at his own arrogance. “As a police officer, you have to have an ego, be confident,” he said. “It’s how you stay safe.”

It also makes them their own worst enemies when it comes to admitting a take-down by addiction.

But shame worked.

“My dad – a guy who’d worked for 40 years, who had never had the opportunities I’d had, he looked at me and asked, ‘At what point in life do you take responsibility for your actions?’ ”Riley said. “That was it. I was done.”

He went to treatment, pleaded guilty and received three years probation.

But with a felony conviction on his record, his career as a police officer was done.  He turned instead to helping people like himself.


Taping 'Diagnosing Solutions'

Enrique Cerna moderates a panel on prescription drug abuse in the KCTS-9 studio. Photo credit: Peter Johnson.

Experts on prescription drug abuse gathered at KCTS 9's studios in Seattle today to tape a panel discussion. Over the course of a half hour, the panel discussed the medical and social causes of prescription drug abuse and policies that might make a dent in the addiction epidemic. The discussion will air Monday, January 30 at 9 p.m. on KCTS-9, following the airing of InvestigateWest and KCTS's jointly-produced "Prescription for Abuse" documentary.

The panel included policymakers, law enforcement, medical professionals, and treatment experts, as well as our own Carol Smith, who wrote the two-part investigation on which the documentary is based. The experts agreed that the massive upsurge of prescription drug abuse in recent years is directly related to an upsurge in opioid prescriptions from doctors; in the late 90s, the medical profession concluded that its methodologies for treating both chronic and acute pain were ineffectual and began to prescribe more opioid medications as a result.

However, that well-intentioned change in medical practice resulted in disaster for many patients. Some doctors reacted to the new methodology by overprescribing medication for pain patients—a fumble that allowed incredibly powerful narcotics to sneak into American homes.

Given that prescription drugs are prescribed by doctors for patients with legitimate pain needs, the profile of a prescription drug addict often doesn’t match that of a street drug user.


Interview: Rose Dennis

Rose Dennis, Board of Directors, SAMA. Credit: Ethan Morris/KCTS.

Prescription drug overdoses kill two people a day in Washington state. But the damage caused by addiction to painkillers is even more widespread. As part of its collaboration with InvestigateWest, KCTS invited recovering addicts and their families to share their stories. Here Ethan Morris, executive producer for public affairs at KCTS, interviews Rose Dennis. Dennis is on the Board of Directors of SAMA, the Science and Management of Addictions. She’s also the parent of an addicted child.

Ethan Morris: If you could start by telling us your name and maybe introduce yourself by saying your name and why you’re here.

Rose Dennis: Hello my name is Rose, and I am here today because I have a son who has an opiate pain addiction, which is the disease of addiction and he has been living with this disease for over 12 years. Unfortunately, he was introduced to opiates when he was13 and he was in the hospital fighting for his life. He had acute myelogenous leukemia, which is cancer of the blood and bone marrow. He was in the hospital for nine months, and he was also hooked up to an opiate drip. And he left the hospital cured of cancer, but with the new disease called addiction.

EM: And he needed this opiate drip for his treatment for leukemia?

RD: Well I guess so. The doctors felt at that time, because of the type of protocol therapy that he was going through, that he did need to have pain medicine. I think it’s just unfortunate that he was given such large dosages at such a young age, not knowing what the side effects were going to be.

EM: So he finishes his treatments and gets out of the hospital. What happens then?