Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs
Some prescription medications are so common that people happily suggest they should be added to our water supply. OK, consider it done!
Many people toss expired or unused medications in the trash or flush them down the toilet. Some components of these drugs end up in our lakes, streams, and water supplies. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The improper disposal of unused medications by flushing them or pouring them down the drain may be harmful to fish, wildlife and their habitats.” In fact, measurable levels of medications used to treat depression, high cholesterol, bipolar disorder, and high blood pressure have been found in fish in rivers near Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities.
Water treatment plants and most filters – Including filters for bottled water – are not constructed to clear out small amounts of drugs, so our drinking water probably contains trace amounts of pharmaceuticals. In a widely read 2008 investigation from the Associated Press, antibiotics, pain medication, tranquilizers, antidepressants, hypertension drugs, and sex hormones were found in the drinking water of 41 million people in the United States.
How Do Medications Get into Our Water?
Drugs enter our water supply in several ways:
- Many of us have medications that we no longer take, that have expired, or were used by someone who died. Most of these medications are flushed down the toilet or, in the case of liquids poured down sink drains.
- When we take a medication, our bodies absorb some of the drug. The remainder passes through us (in our urine or stool) and is flushed down the toilet.
Throwing medications away in the garbage may be dangerous since they can end up in the mouths of children and household pets.
Additionally, there is a growing danger from “dumpster divers” who look for old pills and pill containers – preferably painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin – then steal the private information that’s printed on the label.
I admit that I have been guilty of not appropriately disposing of unused medications. Following the reports about water contamination, I did research on the issue and now correctly dispose of both prescription and over-the-counter medications.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued the following guidelines in 2009 for the proper disposal of prescription medications:
Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet or drain unless the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs you to do so.
To dispose of prescription drugs not labeled to be flushed, you may be able to take advantage of community drug take‐back programs or other programs, such as household hazardous waste collection events, that collect drugs at a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county 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:
- Take your prescription drugs out of their original containers.
- Mix drugs with an undesirable substance, such as cat litter or used coffee grounds.
- Put the mixture into a disposable container with a lid, such as an empty margarine tub, or into a sealable bag.
- Conceal or remove any personal information, including Rx number, on the empty containers by covering it with black permanent marker or duct tape, or by scratching it off.
- Place the sealed container with the mixture, and the empty drug containers, in the trash.
As part of this policy, the government recommends that some medications (especially narcotics and other painkillers) be flushed down the toilet instead of thrown in the trash. The goal is to reduce the danger of unintentional use, overdose, or illegal abuse.
Some Disagree with the Federal Drug Flushing Policy
Some states and environmentalists do not agree with the federal government’s policy on flushing certain medications. For example, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection states that, “Although this method of disposal prevents immediate accidental ingestion, it can cause contamination in our aquatic environment because wastewater treatment systems, including septic tanks, are not designed to remove many of these medications.”
Instead, this Florida agency outlines a step-by-step method for the safe disposal of all prescription and over-the-counter medications:
For Pills and Liquids:
- Keep the medicines in the original container. This will help identify the contents if they are accidentally ingested.
- Remove your name and prescription number to safeguard your identity.
- For pills, add some water or soda to start dissolving them.
- For liquids, add something inedible like cat litter, dirt or cayenne pepper.
- Close the lid and secure with duct tape or packing tape.
- Place the bottle(s) inside an opaque (non see-through) container like a coffee can or plastic laundry bottle.
- Tape that container closed.
- Hide the container in the trash. Do not put in the recycle bin.
To learn more about the disposal and safety of prescription medications, including information about environmental issues and how to help prevent teen prescription drug abuse, visit www.disposemymeds.org.