How to safely dispose of unused and outdated medication

Many of us have outdated and unused prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pills and liquids sitting in our medicine cabinets. Sometimes we feel better and forget to finish our prescription or sometimes we just haven’t had the time to go through them and weed out the expired packages and bottles.

Not only are extra and expired medications dangerous to small children who may mistake the pills for candy and be tempted to eat them, but older children are also getting into trouble by dipping into prescriptions like Grandpa’s no longer needed painkillers or mom’s spare anti-anxiety medication.

To remove this dangerous situation from your house, you’ve got to get rid of all no-longer used medications. But how should you do that?

Take back programs

With these programs, you bring your medications to a specified drop-off site and the agency collecting the drugs take it from there. Many police departments sponsor take-back events and in some cases, they might even have a secure box at the police station where you can drop off medications at any time (see below for additional instructions).

Contact your city or county government's household trash and recycling service or police department to see if there is a medicine take-back program in your community and learn about any special rules regarding what medicines can be taken back (for example, some programs do not accept liquids.)

You can also talk to your pharmacist to see if he or she knows of other medicine disposal programs or visit the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s website for information.

When dropping mediations in a drop box:

  • Pills: Keep all medication in their original bottles, or empty the pills into a zip lock bag.
  • Liquids: Keep all liquids in their original containers and place them in a zip-lock bag in case they leak.
  • Inhalers: Read handling instructions on the labels of inhalers and aerosol products because they could be dangerous if punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. To ensure safe disposal that complies with local regulations and laws, contact your local trash and recycling facility.
  • Syringes and sharps: Federal and state law prohibit the acceptance of sharps in a drop box including syringes, lancets or needles. Sharps of this type can be disposed of by contacting the NH Syringe Access Initiative at 271-0290, the SHARPS (Store Household Sharps and Return them Properly) Program at 800-628-8070, or at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation Sharps Program at 485-3806.

And don’t forget; you should always scratch or use a marker to black out any personal information off of prescription bottle labels before placing them in a drop box.

Disposal in household trash

In some cases, there may not be a medicine take-back program available in your area. If this is the case, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises you to follow these steps to dispose of most medicines in the household trash:

  • Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds
  • Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag and throw the container in your household trash
  • As with the drop box, before throwing out your empty pill bottle or other empty medicine packaging, remember to scratch out all information on the prescription label to make it unreadable.

Flushing of certain medicines 

According to the FDA, just one dose of a small number of medicines may be especially harmful, even fatal, if taken by someone other than the person for whom the medicine was prescribed. Many of these potentially harmful medicines have specific disposal instructions on their labels or patient information to immediately flush them down the sink or toilet when they are no longer needed. An example of this type of medication is a pain patch, Oxycodone or Percocet.

Environmental concerns

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 in FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Bloom goes on to say "many drugs are not completely absorbed or metabolized by the body and can enter the environment after passing through waste water treatment plants."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, scientists to date have found no evidence of adverse human health effects from drug residues in the environment.

Reduce the amount

One of the best ways to reduce the amount of medication is to limit how much comes in. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services offers the following advice to reduce the amount of waste pharmaceuticals in your home:

  1. Only purchase what you need.
  2. Say “no” to samples if you are not going to use them.
  3. Stop junk mail. Take your name off mailing lists so you don’t receive free samples products such as pain relievers.
  4. Centralize all pharmaceuticals in one location so you know what you have on hand. They may help to limit over purchasing of products.

Your best defense is an offense

When it comes to drugs in the home, the rule is simple – don’t keep unneeded medications in the home. Regularly inspect your medicine cabinet and dispose of medications that are outdated or prescriptions that are no longer needed. A little maintenance can go a long way in keeping your family safe from the potential hazards of expired and unused medications.

For more information, consult nh.gov/medsafety.

Wendy Thomas lives in Merrimack with her husband and six children, and has been published in various regional magazines and newspapers.

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