Curriculum You can Drink: How Students Brought Cleaner Water and the P2D2 Dream to the Illinois Governorís Pen

Michael Soares
April 19, 2012 — 1,922 views  
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Standing above a lightly tossing Chicago River and dwarfed by the behemoth buildings occupying a short section of Michigan Avenue, a small crowd gathered to commemorate the victorious culmination of a protracted effort to protect the waterways of Illinois.  Among camera crews, newsmakers, and curious onlookers, no less than Illinois Governor Pat Quinn himself was present, equipped with a pen which would sign into reality a dream that Paul Ritter and his students conceived years earlier. Government officials spoke, teachers observed proudly, and students stood in awe as Governor Quinn finished signing the documents in front of him and called out “Where’s Mr. Ritter?”  Paul Ritter, science teacher at Pontiac Township High School, stepped forward.  “Take these, they belong to you,” said the governor, pressing copies of Illinois House Bills 2056 and 2053 into Ritter’s chest. Those intimately involved with the genesis of the bills and the efforts of thousands of hours of work shared a look of accomplishment.  Ritter and his students had realized their dream of protecting the Illinois water supply by seeing the Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal Program (P2D2) passed unanimously by the Illinois Legislature and ultimately signed into law by the chief executive of the state. 

P2D2 was initiated when the speculation of what one should do with expired and unused pharmaceuticals taking up space in the medicine cabinet went unanswered. Not wanting to simply dump the drugs down the drain, and suspecting that they would eventually make their way to the water supply, Ritter took the dilemma to his classroom and posed the question to his Ecology students.  With assistance from the internet, teacher and students began to uncover what Ritter describes as, “startling information pertaining to the effect of pharmaceuticals on the quality of drinking water around the world.”   According to the P2D2 website, students “found that scientists with the United States Geological Society have detected drugs such as antibiotics, anti-depressants, birth control pills, seizure medication, cancer treatments, pain killers, tranquilizers, and cholesterol-lowering compounds in varied ground water sources.”  Once Ritter had proposed to his students that they research prescription waste disposal and formulate a plan, he was disturbed when it was revealed that waste water treatment methods were never intended to remove such chemicals in local facilities.  In fact, they were incapable of doing so. Furthermore, they discovered that scientists were concerned “that, in humans, the chemicals in our water supply could increase rates of breast, testicular, and prostate cancer, as well as lower sperm counts and disrupt hormones.”  As the accumulation of information revealed, it was evident that the safe disposal of prescription drugs was not currently a viable option.  Ritter became determined to change that and set about creating a program that would provide this service, setting into motion a phenomenon which would ultimately spread across the United States and even draw interest abroad.

The crusade launched by Ritter soon began to inspire others including students, teachers, and administrators - and then the outreach to the community began in earnest.  Contact with local radio stations in central Illinois also raised the profile of the fledgling program, boosting it into the consciousness of the general public and ultimately to the Illinois state capital. To reinforce its potential in Springfield, Ritter’s students collaborated with the PTHS History department in a letter writing campaign, initiating a media blitz to elected officials, ranging from local, to state, to even federal levels in order to increase awareness of the prescription drug disposal issue.  As the program gained steam, students at PTHS slowly began to move out of their comfort zones amid the realization that their efforts we paying off in high impact ways.  Lessons in conservation and recycling were reaching far past the high school to make positive changes in the community, and it soon became clear that P2D2 had the potential ability to change how people viewed drug contaminated water not just across the state, but across the country.  In short, Ritter’s influence began to extend far beyond the classroom for these students, and his attempt to capture young hearts and inject into them his zeal for saving the Earth began to manifest itself in real world applications both in Pontiac and also statewide, ultimately drawing interest from states all over America.

Billing itself as “a collaborative effort between communities, local pharmacies, police departments, hospitals, city officials, students, and more,” the P2D2 program which once existed only in imagination swiftly boiled over into reality.  Local pharmacies in Pontiac agreed to allow customers to bring in unused prescription drugs for the purpose of safe disposal.  Police stations also opened up their doors, using retired and repurposed mailboxes to safely and securely serve as drop-off centers. Anyone dropping off unused prescriptions could be confident that instead of going into the water supply, their drugs would be sent to an eco-friendly facility where they would be responsibly incinerated.

Ultimately, Ritter and his students suspected that an increased push could propel the program beyond Livingston County, and perhaps even statewide.  Megan Bozarth, a social studies teacher at PTHs, was enlisted to teach her honors students how to write to representatives and senators in support of bills concerning legislation funding P2D2 efforts, placing an additional $25 fee on illegal drug possession fines in Illinois.  With these new funds, Illinois could ship all unused prescription drugs collected to the incineration facilities at no cost to the taxpayers.  The bills passed unanimously through the Illinois House in the spring of 2011 and eventually made their way to the governor’s desk.

Today, in addition to Illinois, P2D2 programs exist in all parts of the U.S., from New England to the West Coast, from the Midwest to the South, and even as far reaching as Alaska and Hawaii, with more states showing interest all the time.  Since the full implementation of P2D2, the program has even attracted international attention.  Paul Ritter, the man who sounded his high profile message for students and community to hear and act upon, is humbled to see all the hard work and effort come to fruition.  According to Ritter, “This program was developed with the philosophies of ‘think globally, act locally,’ and ‘students are the agents of change.’ Knowing that the P2D2 program is a work in progress, I realize that it will change in response to our global needs.  I do hope that people will look at it in years to come and see that we gave everything we could to be the catalyst for knowledge and change.  This program has changed my life forever.  I dedicate this material to our children.  They are the future of our world.”  The Chicago River, famously reversed long ago and ultimately reaching the Gulf of Mexico vicariously through other rivers, serves symbolically for P2D2 which also originated in Illinois and yet has made its way throughout the country both by word of mouth, media exposure, and the sheer will of its creator and his students.

Learn more about the P2D2 program at: http://www.p2d2program.org/old/index.html

Michael Soares's colleague, Paul Ritter, has also provided a 30 minute webinar, "Properly Disposing of Unused Medicines" to go along with the topic.  Listen for free at http://www.publicworksresource.com/free30/Properly-Disposing-Unused-Medicines.

 

Michael Soares


Michael Soares has been an English teacher at Pontiac Township High School for fifteen years and is faculty sponsor student newspaper, The Chief (http://www.pontiac.k12.il.us/?page_id=476). He is the Editor of the P2D2 program and can be reached at [email protected]