Unused medications, whether expired or simply no longer needed, should be disposed of to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands (or paws).
But how do you get rid of those medications? If you wash them down the drain or flush them away, they get into the water system. Too much medication disposed of this way can be harmful to the environment. If you throw them in the trash, they can possibly get into the wrong hands or be found by animals.
The best way to dispose of most medications is to mix them with something unpalatable like coffee grounds or kitty litter and place the mixture into a sealed plastic bag. Then, the bag can be placed in the household trash. When disposing of medications, it is wise to remove or obscure any personal information on the prescription vial. This keeps your medical information confidential.
For certain medications (e.g., strong narcotics, fentanyl pain patches), the FDA actually recommends that they be flushed down the toilet or sink. The harm that can be done by these types of medications being discovered in the home or taken from the trash outweighs the trace amounts that would be added to the water supplies. For example, the patches that contain narcotic medication, meant to be released over time, can cause dangerously decreased breathing or heart rates – leading to potentially fatal incidents – if they were to be handled by a child or pet. There are still small amounts of medication in the patch – even after it has been used for its full course – that can be toxic to someone for which the medication wasn’t intended.
Since the FDA limits the number and types of medication that can be disposed of in this way, only trace amounts of these types of drugs appear in the water system. Although this may run counter to your good environmental sense, in actuality, these types of drugs are already found in the water supply in safe, trace amounts, arriving there via natural human waste from the people who used the medication as prescribed.
Some states have donation programs for certain medications that are sealed and still in date. For example, Wisconsin will take back certain cancer treatments if they are still in their original packaging. There are organizations that take unused and unexpired HIV medications for donation. You can find donation programs if you search for “unused drug donations.”
Also note that Saturday, September 29th is National Take Back Day, organized by the DEA and the US Department of Justice. They have worked with towns and local government agencies to provide safe and secure collection sites at which you can drop off unwanted or unused medications. To find a collection site near you, please click here.
For additional information, the following websites may be useful to you:
- The FDA website has a good overview of safe medication disposal, as well as a detailed list of medications that should be flushed
- Take Back Express has options on disposal of EXPIRED medications
- The organization Aids for AIDS has information and lists options for donating unused HIV medications
Beth Yonce has been a pharmacist for more than 20 years. Most of her career has been spent in the Boston area (except for two years at a large retail pharmacy in Los Angeles) and with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates at its West Roxbury, Braintree, and Copley practices. She is currently the Chief of Clinical Pharmacy at Copley. Beth enjoys spending time with her family (which includes a husband, four kids, and a dog).