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How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medications

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Storing unused or expired medications in your home can cause a potential risk to children, teenagers, seniors, or others in your home. Improperly disposing of drugs, however, can also pose a threat to the environment. When you are no longer in need of prescription or over-the-counter medications, dispose of them safely using the tips that follow.

The Dangers of Storing Medications in Your Home

Storing unused medications in your home that you are not actively taking could pose a danger to anyone in your household who may inadvertently or intentionally misuse the product. The following groups are particularly at risk:

  • Children who mistake medication for candy or food
  • Teens or adults with a substance abuse problem
  • Teens or adults looking to experiment with prescription medication
  • Seniors or adults with a cognitive or memory disability who may be confused about their medication plan

Prescription medication misuse—whether intentional or inadvertent—could result in severe consequences such as dependency, an accidental overdose, or in the worst case scenario, death. 

The Dangers of Improperly Disposing of Medications

When over-the-counter or prescription medications, including pills and liquids, are disposed of using unsafe practices, they can have detrimental effects on the environment when they end up in waterways or landfills. Scientists have found that when pharmaceutical-related chemicals leach into our water system, they not only impact marine life, but they can affect humans by contaminating drinking water supplies. Studies have found that exposure to chemicals such as antibiotics, anti-depressants, steroids, seizure medications, and painkillers are changing the growth, reproduction, and behavior of many species, including frogs and fish—fish that are part of the human food cycle.

The long-term effects of such dangerous food and water supply contamination are not fully known. However, with some awareness of these dangers, and a small amount of effort, the millions of Americans who take medications daily can help to mitigate the impact of these dangers on our environment, and our loved ones.

How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medications

  1. Seek Out a Medicine Take-Back Program. Pharmacies, doctors’ offices, law enforcement agencies, and non-profit organizations routinely coordinate medicine take-back programs. During these events, members of the community can drop-off unused or expired prescription or over-the-counter medications for their safe disposal by pharmacology experts, or the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Such programs are sometimes available seasonally as occasional events, or you may be able to locate a permanent drop-off location in your area that is managed by a local law enforcement agency or non-profit. A take-back program should be your preferred disposal option, and always your first choice.
  1. Throw Out Medicine in Your Household Trash. If a take-back program is not conveniently available in your area, or timely, you can more safely throw out medications in your household trash by following these steps:
  • Mix medicines, but do not crush tablets or capsules, with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds to discourage anyone who may come across disposed of trash to consume.
  • Place the mixture in a sealed container or plastic bag.
  • Throw the container in your household trash.
  • Remove all personal identifiable information from the prescription label and then dispose of the container.
  1. Dispose of Acceptable Liquid Medications by Flushing Them Down the Toilet. Note that this option is only advisable for certain identified medications that include flushing instructions on their packaging. If you have any questions about whether or not your liquid medications can be flushed, reference the DEA’s most current flush list.

The quick and safe disposal of unused medications from your home ensures the greatest safety for family, friends, and the environment. If you have any questions about what to do with your unused medications or would like more information, visit the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).

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