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Dispose of Medication the Safe Way

Careless disposing of medication has become an eco-disaster

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dispose of medication

Flushing them down the toilet is not a safe way to dispose of medication.

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Who cares how I dispose of medication? I just flush expired drugs down the toilet.

Flushing your unused or expired medication may be quick and easy, but that convenience comes at a high price. Fish in rivers near Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities were found to have measurable levels of drugs used to treat depression, high cholesterol, bipolar disorder, high blood pressure and other ailments. In the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., about 80 percent of the male bass have eggs in their testes or other reproductive problems. Similar results have been seen in rivers nationwide. The cause, say researchers, is the high levels of contraceptive drugs and other hormone-disrupting chemicals in the water.

Fish, schmish. This isn't gonna affect me or my family.

It might, unfortunately. Water treatment plants and most filters -- including filters for bottled water -- aren't designed to clear out trace amounts of drugs, so your drinking water probably contains many of these same pharmaceuticals and countless others. Antibiotics, pain medication, tranquilizers, antidepressants, hypertension drugs, and sex hormones like estrogen have been found in the drinking water of over 40 million people in the United States.

Aren't there rules about these kinds of contaminants?

Not in most places. There are no federal standards or safety limits on the amount of drugs that drinking water can contain, and very few places test to see if there are any pharmaceuticals in their water. Even large cities like New York, Chicago, Houston, Boston and Phoenix don't check for drugs in their tap water. In the example above from the Potomac River, over 4 million people in the Washington, D.C., area get their drinking water from that drug-contaminated source.

How big is the problem of unsafe disposal of medication?

It's big, and getting bigger every year. Over 4 billion prescriptions are written each year in the United States, and that number increases every year. Some 40 percent of those drugs aren't taken, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. That leaves roughly 200 million pounds of unused medication to dispose of somehow. And it isn't just the general public that's dumping pharmaceuticals: hospitals and other health care centers dispose of 250 million pounds of drugs each year, and most are simply flushed down the drain.

But we're talking about small amounts of diluted drugs -- what's the harm in that?

Nobody knows. The amounts of drugs in drinking water are tiny, but remember that those drugs are usually prescribed for short-term use only -- no one knows how a lifetime of exposure to low doses of pharmaceuticals can affect human or animal health (though if the fish in the Potomac River are in any way typical, the effects can be alarming). Health experts are especially concerned about the impact of long-term exposure on children, pregnant women and the elderly.

OK, I get it. So everyone should just dispose of medication in the garbage.

Unfortunately, that can cause other problems. Kids and pets are notorious for getting things out of trash bins, and there's a particular type of "dumpster diver" who specializes in finding old pills and pill containers -- a favorite find is narcotic painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin -- then stealing the private information that's printed on the label. And even when they're in a landfill, drugs can leach out into water supplies.

Then what the heck am I supposed to do with expired prescription medicine?

Perhaps the best option is to find a drug store that recycles old medication. A growing number of pharmacies are responding to the threat of drug disposal by implementing drug take-back programs. There's a great website, DisposeMyMeds.org, that has lots of information on this issue and, best of all, a locator to find a drug store in your area that takes back unused medication.

I checked around and found nothing within 25 miles of my house. What now?

The FDA and drug-enforcement agencies have developed guidelines to help make drug disposal safer for everyone:
  • Scratch out all personal information on the prescription bottle and toss it in the garbage
  • Pour the drugs into a sturdy, sealable sandwich bag or plastic container
  • Add a tiny amount of liquid to dissolve the drugs
  • Mix in coffee grounds, kitty litter or some other unappealing mess
  • Place these in the garbage

What about donating unused drugs to charitable groups?

A handful of non-profits and charitable organizations do accept medication, generally antiretroviral drugs for AIDS or cancer drugs. There are, however, people who have expressed medical and ethical concerns with sending expired or unused medications to developing countries, since there may not be enough drugs to complete a drug regimen, and the drugs may have lost their potency. Thirty-eight states, however, have started programs to recycle medication; check the National Conference of State Legislatures website at www.ncsl.org for more information.
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