Is your medicine cabinet full of expired drugs or medications you no longer use? How should you dispose of them? Many community-based drug “take-back” programs offer the best option. Otherwise, almost all medicines can be thrown in the household trash, but consumers should take precautions.
Medicines play an important role in treating many conditions and diseases and when they are no longer needed it is important to dispose of them properly to help reduce harm from accidental exposure or intentional misuse.
A small number of medicines may be especially harmful if taken by someone other than the person for whom the medicine was prescribed. Many of these medicines have specific disposal instructions on their labeling or patient information leaflet to immediately flush them down the sink or toilet when they are no longer needed.
If no disposal instructions are given on the prescription drug labeling and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash following these steps:
• Remove them from their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds, dirt or kitty litter (this makes the drug less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through the trash seeking drugs).
• Place the mixture in a sealable bag, empty can or other container to prevent the drug from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
Some people are questioning the practice of flushing certain medicines because of concerns about trace levels of drug residues found in surface water, such as rivers and lakes, and in some community drinking water supplies.
“The main way drug residues enter water systems is by people taking medicines and then naturally passing them through their bodies,” says Raanan Bloom, Ph.D., an environmental assessment expert at FDA. “Many drugs are not completely absorbed or metabolized by the body and can enter the environment after passing through wastewater treatment plants.”
“While FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency take the concerns of flushing certain medicines in the environment seriously, there has been no indication of environmental effects due to flushing,” Bloom says.
“Nonetheless, FDA does not want to add drug residues into water systems unnecessarily,” adds Hunter. FDA reviews drug labels to identify products with disposal directions recommending flushing down the sink or toilet. This continuously updated listing can be found at FDA’s Web page on Disposal of Unused Medicines at fda.gov.