Dispose of Unused Medications Safely
Many people toss unused medications in the garbage, flush them down the toilet, or wash them down the sink. What they don’t realize is that these medications, when not disposed of properly, can have a negative affect on the environment and even human health.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, scientific research has revealed that medication that winds up in lakes, ponds, streams and elsewhere in the environment affects living creatures in a number of ways. Fish caught near wastewater treatment plants, for example, have been found to contain residues of human medications designed to treat such conditions as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, and even allergies. Documented impacts have included the development of female traits in male fish and reproduction problems in shellfish that have been traced to anti-depressants.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation notes that in addition to documented affects on fish and other aquatic wildlife, “long-term exposure to low levels of antibiotics might result in the evolution of, or selection for, drug-resistant microbes and bacteria.” Concerns have also been voiced that drugs thrown in the trash might contain substances that could harm human health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers the example of the fentanyl patch, an adhesive patch that delivers a potent pain medicine through the skin. The patch comes with instructions to flush used or leftover patches, but an excess of fentanyl “can cause severe breathing problems and lead to death in babies, children, pets, and even adults, especially those who have not been prescribed the drug."
“Even after a patch is used, a lot of the drug remains in the patch," says Capt. Jim Hunter, R.Ph., M.P.H., senior program manager on FDA's Controlled Substance Staff, "so you wouldn't want to throw something in the trash that contains a powerful and potentially dangerous narcotic that could harm others."
Clearly, it’s important to dispose of medications properly, but if you can’t flush them down the toilet or simply throw them in the garbage, what exactly should you do?
The FDA has posted guidelines online that will help you determine the best steps. According to the agency, “Most drugs can be thrown in the trash, but consumers should take certain precautions before tossing them out….”
Following is the summary of federal guidelines which has been posted on the FDA site:
- Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information that accompanies the medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
- Take advantage of community drug take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county government's household trash and recycling service to see if a take-back program is available in your community. The Drug Enforcement Administration, working with state and local law enforcement agencies, is sponsoring National Prescription Drug Take Back Days throughout the United States.
- If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first:
- Take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will be less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
- Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
The FDA's Deputy Director of the Office of Compliance Lisa Bernstein, Pharm.D., J.D., offers these additional tips:
- Before throwing out a medicine container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.
- Do not give medications to friends. Doctors prescribe drugs based on a person's specific symptoms and medical history. A drug that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.
- When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.
Take the above precautions when disposing of any unused medication, whether the drug is a prescription medicine or was purchased over the counter. And check the FDA site or contact your town or the agency if you have any questions or concerns.