Safe Disposal of Unused Drugs

Do you take Lipitor or Paxil? Think not? Think again. We all take them—along with OxyContin, Warfarin, antibiotics galore, Advil and many other drugs. How can this be? Unfortunately, the water supply is teeming with trace chemicals from prescription and over-the-counter medications—medications people flush down the toilet or pour down the drain. Every time you turn on the faucet, a drug cocktail flows from the tap. 

Water treatment centers can remove around 50 percent of the chemicals we’ve flushed. Even reverse osmosis leaves behind 1 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Stop the Flow
It’s easier to prevent chemicals from entering the water supply than it is to clean up the water. You probably remember back in the 1970s when pollution in the Great Lakes was a major issue. The United States and Canada are still trying to rid the lakes of their accumulated toxins. But, better late than never.

And now, we face a similar issue with the entire water supply. Instead of industrial pollution, chemicals from drugs and personal care products pose the greatest concern.

Harvard Medical School reports, “Reliable figures are hard to come by, but it’s a safe assumption that we, as consumers, are responsible for a hefty percentage of the pharmaceutical and personal care products that wind up in lakes, rivers and streams.” There’s no cause for alarm yet, but Harvard reports that we should take preventive steps now before it becomes a serious problem.

We were taught to flush unused and expired drugs so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. The government has done an about-face on drug disposal directives: Stop flushing drugs, except as noted below.

How to Dispose of Unused Drugs
Today, the FDA and DEA advocate three preferred methods of drug disposal: take-back programs, mail-back programs and trash disposal. Some drugs require flushing if you can’t find a take-back program.

Take-back programs
Search the database to locate a take-back program near you. Take-back programs usually accept any medications, including controlled substances. This is the best way to rid your house of controlled, Schedule II substances. If there’s no location near you, call your police precinct’s nonemergency number to find out if they sponsor a DEA-approved program.

Mail-back programs
Note: Mail-back programs are not for use with controlled, Schedule II drugs. 

Some of the large pharmacy chains sell postage-paid mailers. Walgreens has a Safe Medication Disposal Program. You can purchase a postage-paid mailer at any Walgreens pharmacy counter for $2.99. For details, visit the Walgreens site and look in the “Biohazard Disposal” section for details. 

Trash disposal
In the absence of a convenient drug take-back or mail-back program, the FDA suggests the following for disposing of noncontrolled substances including over-the-counter medications:
Mix the medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, Kitty Litter or used coffee grounds.
Place the mixture in a container such as a zip-top or sealable plastic bag.
Throw the container away in your household trash.

When all else fails
A few prescription medicines contain controlled substances that are harmful when taken by someone other than the patient. They can prove fatal if children or pets take them. These medications should never be thrown in the trash due to the possibility that someone could find them. If a DEA-authorized collector or drug take-back program is not available, the FDA recommends that you dispose of controlled substances by flushing when they are no longer needed or have expired. View, download or print a current list of controlled medications. 

Your pharmacist is your friend and is more than happy to share information about drugs and drug laws with you. When in doubt, call your pharmacist.