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Medication Disposal: Environmental Impact & Solutions

Discarding unused prescription medications has the potential to harm our environment but very few disposal options are available. One can flush them, trash them, or deliver them to a special drop-off location. All of these solutions have different flaws. Over the decades since this issue was first identified, the prevailing recommendation is to dispose of unused medications through various take-back programs by dropping them off at police stations or pharmacies. But, surprisingly, this may not be the most environmentally friendly option.

What can one do with these medications?

First of all, don’t keep them. Allowing expired or otherwise unused medications to accumulate in one’s medicine cabinet poses many risks. The chance of unintentional misuse is high – often the taking of medication beyond the period specified by the prescription can cause unexpected side-effects and injury. Additionally, there is greater risk of pharmaceuticals falling into the hands of children or drug abusers.

Second, never flush your medications! For decades, this has been the common practice, but it has proven to be the most environmentally damaging disposal method. Unlike human waste, many drugs are not able to be filtered out by wastewater treatment plants and end up in our waterways and reservoirs. Recent EPA studies identified over 100 types of contaminants from pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment and water supply.

Risk to human health from these contaminants is minimal, as concentrations of them are too diluted to cause harm, but for wildlife the effects can be devastating. Hormones from birth control pills have been shown to cause male fish to produce eggs, anti-depressants and beta-blockers are known to affect the spawning of aquatic life, antibiotics in the environment are encouraging the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria and microbes, and cause mutations in frogs and other amphibians.

Pharmaceutical Take-Back programs are another option but have their drawbacks as well. Until recently, DEA restrictions on the transportation of narcotics have made this option extremely inconvenient, as the only allowed drop-off locations have been at police stations. The impact on the environment from this method is nearly as bad as flushing. The amount of pharmaceutical contaminants released into the environment from this method is the least – the drugs collected are all incinerated and do not end up in our waterways, but greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation and shipping of them are greater than flushing or trashing.

Medication disposal in the trash can be hazardous as well, but may be the best option if done properly.  The FDA recommends emptying the medications from their original containers into a sealable plastic bag with water and allowing them to dissolve. Before disposing of the bag in the household trash, mix in material such as kitty litter, used coffee grounds, or sawdust to make them unrecognizable or undesirable to animals or people who may be searching through the trash. It is recommended to remove labels or black-out any personal information from the original containers before recycling them.

For more information on the proper disposal of prescription medications, visit this handy website sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America. You can learn all about drug take-back programs in your area by visiting the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control website.


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