How to Dispose of Medications in an Environmentally Safe Way

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What to Do With Unused Medication

Unwanted Meds

It’s not out of the question to assume that many of us have old medications somewhere in the bathroom or medicine cabinet. We don’t take them anymore, they’re expired, or maybe they belonged to a relative who is no longer with us.

A great deal of these of these medications we no longer use contain compounds that are known sometimes as “emerging pollutants of concern” or “microconstituents.” Some of these microconstituents (i.e. synthetic estrogen used in therapy for hormone replacement), are considered to be dangerous (some endocrine disrupters are thought to interfere with hormone processes), and made that much worse by individuals who are technically not just using, but abusing medications.

Low levels of antibiotics, when disposed of in an environmentally unsafe way, can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of harmful bacteria. Still others, like sedatives, can affect or modify central nervous system activity.

These microconstituents are sometimes found (in low concentrations) in many types of water: surface, industrial or domestic wastewater, ground or reclaimed water, industrial wastewater, runoff from agricultural areas and others. Because these compounds are regularly associated with human activity, scientists are now actively looking for microconstituents using special analytical tools to locate them at low concentrations.

Many of these compounds are used to enhance our quality of life by protecting human health, enhancing consumer goods, and optimizing agricultural production. It is inevitable that small amounts of these compounds will be released to the environment. It is also likely that these compounds have been there for decades and have remained undetected until the recent development of analytical methods to enable their identification and quantification.

Although concentrations of many of these microconstituents found in water are hundreds (or even thousands) of times lower than the dosages found in medications, research has shown there can be negative health effects on aquatic organisms (including species of fish and frogs). At this time, no research has shown that concentrations of microconstituents currently pose a threat to any of our drinking water supplies.

Suffice it to say, the amount of these microconstituents can be reduced when we properly dispose of unwanted, unused or expired medications. Read: don’t just flush them down the toilet or a drain, as many people commonly do. This can cause contamination in our aquatic environment because wastewater treatment systems are not designed to rid water of several of these types of medications.

Your best bet? Put them in the trash after taking precautions to prevent accidental ingestion by animals, pets or humans.

Remember to never dispose of old medications in the toilet or down the drain.

Resources to Aid in the Disposal of Unused Medications

SMARxT Disposal

Starfish Project – takes donations of certain meds by mail and distributes them to people in need.
Earth 911 – enter your zip and the word medication to find nearby drop sites for unused pills.
SMARxT Disposal – disposal options for those who don’t have a nearby drop-spot.
Green Pharmacy Program – join its campaign to push for proper disposal facilities in your area.
Drug Repository Programs – check with your local Department of Health or Board of Pharmacy.
Pharmacies – some pharmacies (such as many Rite Aids) offer safe drug disposal programs; check with yours.

Quick Guides for Disposal of Unwanted Meds for Home and Apartment Dwellers

Remember: Don’t Flush That Leftover Medicine because this can cause contamination to your state’s aquatic environment: wastewater treatment systems are not designed to remove many of these medications.

To protect the environment, Use these guidelines instead of flushing medications:

1. Keep in the original container. This will help identify the contents if they are accidentally ingested.
2. Mark out your name & prescription number for safety.
3. For pills: add some water or soda to start dissolving them; For liquids: add something inedible like cat litter or dirt.
4. Close the lid and secure with duct or packing tape.
5. Place the bottle(s) inside an opaque (non see-through) container like a detergent container.
6. Tape that container closed.
7. Hide the container in the trash. Do not put it in the recycle bin.

More Rules for the Proper Disposal of Unused Medications

DO NOT give drugs to anyone else once you are done or after they’re expired.

DO NOT flush drugs down the toilet or drain.

DO NOT put drugs in the trash without disguising or first destroying them – human or animal scavengers may find them and misuse them.

Some of the information here has been adapted from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection

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