Here's What You Need to Know in Order to Dispose of Old and Unused Medications Properly
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Here's What You Need to Know in Order to Dispose of Old and Unused Medications Properly

Contrary to popular believe, most medications should not be flushed down the toilet or put down the drain

August 10, 2019

If you look in your medicine cabinet, you will probably find some old medications you don't need anymore. Whether it's a prescription painkiller or something over-the-counter, you should properly dispose of old and unused medications to prevent them falling into the wrong hands where they can have potentially harmful effects. But how exactly do you do that? Some medications require proper disposal.

Following the instructions with the drug

When most of us get a prescription medication, we only keep the pill bottle that tells us the medication name and how often to take it, tossing the information sheets or print-outs that come with it. Consider hanging on to that information if there's a chance you wont use all the medication. Those information sheets typically include disposal instructions. Some might say to flush the medication. Some might say to toss it in the trash. Some products, such as inhalers, may have special procedures.

Flushing Medications

Don't flush medications or put them down the drain unless there are specific instructions with the medication telling you to do so.

This is the most common disposal method people think of, but it's usually not the right one. Waste water from toilets, sinks, washing machines, etc. in the municipal system is released back into the environment, either sprayed on fields or allowed to drain into our waterways. If you flush a medication, it will end up in our water system. If you aren't connected to a municipal waste system, that medication goes to your septic tank where is can then drain into your backyard. If you are the only one flushing a few pills, you might think it doesn't matter. But if every home on your street flushes medication, it builds up quickly in the environment.

Disposing in the trash

Almost all medications can be thrown in the household trash, including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in pills, liquids, drops, patches, creams, and inhalers. Follow these steps:

  • Remove the drugs from their original containers and mix them with something undesirable, such as used coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter. It can make it less appealing to children and pets and help conceal it from someone who might go through the trash.
  • Put the mixture in something you can close (a storage bag, empty can, or other container) to prevent the drug from leaking or spilling out.
  • Throw the container in the trash.
  • Scratch out all your personal information on the empty medicine packaging to protect your identity and privacy.
  • Throw the packaging away.
  • If you have a question about your medicine, ask your health care provider or pharmacist.

Local take-back programs

Use any program allowing you to bring unused medications to central locations for proper disposal. Call local law enforcement agencies to find out if they sponsor medicine take-back programs in the community. Get in touch with your city or county government's household trash and recycling services to find out what disposal options and guidelines are available in your area.

Collection bins or mail back programs

Transfer any unused medicine to a collector registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). These authorized sites may include retail, hospital, or clinic pharmacies as well as law enforcement agencies. Some offer collection boxes and/or mail back programs.

Find a DEA Collection Location

Returning to your pharmacy or hospital

Returning your prescription medications may be an option, but most facilities will not allow it. Check first. There are very specific federal guidelines for disposing of medications, especially narcotics, and most facilities do not want to take the legal liability of accepting medications from the community.

Prescription Drug Take Back Day

The National Prescription Drug Take Back Day aims to provide a safe, convenient, and responsible means of disposing of prescription drugs, while also educating the general public about the potential for abuse of medications.

The next DEA Prescription Drug Take Back Day is October 26, 2019.