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Safe Ways to Dispose of Unused Drugs

By:  Christine Stone, RN, BSN

If you’re like most people, you probably have unused or expired medications in your closet.   What do you usually do with those medications?   Again, if you’re like most people, you probably just flush them down the toilet or pour them down the drain.  Easy enough, right?    Think again.  

Drugs can get into our water supply in a variety ways.   Households, hospitals, nursing homes, and even some pharmaceutical companies pour drugs down the drain.   Manufacturing companies regularly dump by-products into rivers and streams.  Farms and ranches give animals antibiotic and hormone-laced feed.    And ALL of these toxins are landing in our water supply.

Sewage and water treatment plants are able to remove harmful bacteria and some other impurities from our drinking water, but they are NOT equipped to filter out drugs.  As a result, some pharmaceutical pollution does wind up in our drinking water.   It’s possible that ingesting even very small amounts of these drugs could, over time, affect your health.   Pretty scary, right?

The drugs being poured down the drain are affecting the fish.   For example water sources polluted with hormones such as estrogen (birth control pills) are producing fish with both male and female characteristics.   This is having a negative impact on the fishes’ ability to reproduce.

New guidelines encourage responsible drug disposal for hospitals and nursing homes.   Companies are also under closer scrutiny of their use and disposal of chemicals.

What can YOU do?

  • Do not flush unused medicines or pour down the drain. Instead, throw medications into the trash.   Medications disposed of this way will be incinerated or buried in landfills.   Not ideal, but better than pouring down the drain.
  • Do not buy medications in bulk (large quantities).
  • Use your community’s drug take back program. Take back programs are organized by state and local government, and some private institutions including pharmacy chains. There are over 6,000 such locations around the United States.    These programs allow you to drop off your unused drugs for proper disposal.   I recommend that you first remove any personal identification from the medication containers.   In my community, drugs can be dropped off at the township building – no questions asked.  

In summary, we don’t know the full level of harm to humans from the current levels of drugs in our drinking water.  But why contribute to the likely pollution?    I urge you adopt the easy recommendations listed above.   It’s one of the many ways you can help your fellow man, and also a few fish!