Tips for Disposing of Unused Medications

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In light of the recent nationwide uptick in the use of both over-the-counter and prescriptions drugs — especially opiates — experts are escalating warnings about the dangers of disposing of unused drugs improperly. They caution that simply throwing them in the trash, washing them down the sink, or flushing them down the toilet may have potentially disastrous effects on both humans and the environment.

Those who fear the warnings are much ado about little might be surprised to learn about the bigger reality. Drugs discarded in the trash may be toxic or even fatal for pets, children, illicit users, and people with heightened drug sensitivities who have easy access to them there. In addition to the toxic compounds found in pills, powders, and syrups, residue of powerful pain relievers and other controlled substances may remain in the used or leftover adhesive patches that deliver medications through the skin.

And while the cumulative and long-term effects are largely still unknown, there is already ample evidence that growing amounts of drugs are being deposited in the water supplies, aquifers, and run-off areas in many parts of the country.

A Nationwide Problem

A recent five-month study by the Associated Press National Investigative team found quantities of drugs — including antibiotics, sex hormones, and anti-seizure compounds — in the drinking water supplied to more than 40 million residents in 24 major U.S. metropolitan areas. In Philadelphia, for example, investigators found the drinking water contained 565 drugs or byproducts — including pharmaceuticals for pain, infection, cholesterol control, heart conditions, and asthma.

And there is currently no universal way of isolating the drug residues in the water. The federal government does not require testing — and utility companies nationwide are inconsistent in their approaches, with some testing for a wide range of pharmaceutical compounds, and others testing for only a couple of them.

While the concentrations of drugs discovered have been small, few funds are currently earmarked for testing the long-term effects of exposure to them. And some gerontologists worry that frail seniors may be especially susceptible to suffering bad effects from unwittingly ingesting the drug residue.

What To Do

Conscientious consumers can follow a number of tips and consult a few ready resources to learn how to dispose of unused drugs properly.

Check labeling and package instructions. The labels on most drugs or the patient instructions packaged with them contain specific directions on disposing of unused portions — including whether they may be safely discarded or flushed.

If it is safe to dispose of the drugs in the trash, there are a few precautionary steps to take before you pitch them. Scratch out all identifying information on the label to protect the patient’s privacy. It’s best to remove the drugs from their original bottles or containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or cat litter. This may not only help dilute the potency, but will likely make the drugs less palatable for a pet or person rummaging through the trash. Then place the mixture into a sealed bag or other container.

If you’re unclear about whether a medication can be disposed of in the sink or toilet, check the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s website, which includes a list of medicines that may be safely flushed, along with the active ingredients in each.

Take advantage of local programs. Most hospitals, police and sheriff’s departments, and some pharmacies offer sites for returning unused medications — or can provide information on local disposal options. Some maintain collection receptacles and others offer mail-back programs, providing packaging and low-cost mailing prices.

Participate in ‘Take Back’ Day.  The DEA also sponsors an annual Take Back Day  with safe sites accepting unused drugs in every state. The most recent Take Back Day, in April 2018, boasted some impressive statistics:

  • Total law enforcement participation: 4,683
  • Total number of collection sites: 5,842
  • Total weight of drugs collected: 949,046 lbs. (474.5 Tons)

For those who miss the annual event, the DEA maintains a list of controlled substance public disposal locations searchable by Zip code. You can also call 1-800-882-9539 to locate a local authorized depository.

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