How to Properly Dispose of Medication

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The water we drink comes from lakes, streams, rivers and underground aquifers. Thus, it’s very important that everyone do their part to reduce the pollution entering waterways that carry our drinking water. This is particularly important with respect to disposal of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Properly dispose of prescription drugs

Most people throw out of their unused, unneeded or expired medicines by flushing or pouring them down the drain. Since wastewater treatment facilities aren’t designed to remove pharmaceuticals, the disposed compounds end up in our lakes and streams, and ultimately in our drinking water. Indeed, a 2002 U.S. Geological Survey identified a broad rand of chemicals, including antibiotics and non-prescription drugs, at low concentrations downstream from areas of intense urbanization and animal production [1].

Active pharmaceutical ingredients, from both prescription and over-the-counter medications, can enter the waterways by several different routes [2]:

  1. bodily excretion of unmetabolized active pharmaceutical incredients
  2. release from the skin during washing or bathing
  3. disposal to sewage or trash of medications

To minimize environmental contamination resulting from disposal of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, most medications should not be flushed down the toilet or poured down the drain.

Follow these guidelines to dispose of drugs properly and safely [2]:

Don’t flush prescription drugs down the toilet or drain unless the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs you to do so. For information on drugs that should be flushed, visit the FDA page on safe disposal of medicines.

To dispose of prescription drugs not labeled to be flushed, you may be able to take advantage of community drug take-back programs or household hazardous waste collection events, which collect drugs at a central location for proper disposal. Check with your pharmacy and/or call your local government’s household trash and recycling service and ask if a drug take”back program is available in your community.

If a drug take-back or collection program is not available in your area, follow these steps to ensure the proper and safe disposal of medicines:

  1. Remove medication from its original container.
  2. Mix the drugs with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds.
    IMPORTANT: Don’t crush tablets, open capsules or add water to dissolve. These actions pose added risks for those in proximity and for the environment, since the extended release design of the drug is defeated, making its entire contents immediately bioavailable [3].
  3. Hide the mixture in a disposable container with a lid, such as an empty margarine tub or a ziplock bag to prevent discovery and removal from the trash.
  4. Remove all identifying personal information, including Rx number, on the empty medication container. Hint: conceal with black permanent marker.
  5. Place the sealed container with the mixture, and the empty medication container, in the trash.
  6. Boxed prescription or over-the-counter medications that are foil wrapped should not be removed. Instead, hide the foil-wrapped medications inside a disposable container such as an empty box and discard in the trash.

For more information on pharmaceuticals in the environment, check out SMARxT Disposal: A Prescription for a Healthy Planet.

References

  1. Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and Other Organic Wastewater Contaminants in U.S. Streams. U.S. Geological Survey. 2002 June.
  2. Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs. Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2009 Oct.
  3. Daughton and Ruhoy. Environmental footprint of pharmaceuticals: the significance of factors beyond direct excretion to sewers. Environ Toxicol Chem. 2009 Dec;28(12):2495-521. Epub 2009 Apr 21.
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.