Safe Disposal of Medications You No Longer Use

People often toss expired or unused medications in the trash or drain or flush them down the toilet. Some components of these drugs end up in our lakes, streams, and water supplies. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The improper disposal of unused medications by flushing them or pouring them down the drain may be harmful to fish, wildlife, and their habitats.”

Prescription Medication Medicine Pill Tablets
EHStock / Getty Images

Throwing medications in the garbage also may be dangerous and lead to tragic accidents, as they can end up in the mouths of children or household pets.

There are several options for proper disposal of your medications to protect your family, pets, and the environment from medicine you no longer use.

  • Call your local pharmacy to find out if there are any drug take-back programs or approved collection programs in your area. Your pharmacy may be able to send discarded medications to a registered disposal company.
  • Pour liquid medication or pills into a sealable plastic bag or an empty can. Add a substance like kitty litter, sawdust, or used coffee grounds to make the medication less appealing to kids and pets. Seal the container and put it in the trash.
  • Before recycling or throwing away your empty medication containers, remove or scratch out the prescription label or any personal information to protect your privacy.

Disposal of Medications Deemed Hazardous Waste

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), certain prescription medications are considered hazardous wastes and must be disposed of appropriately. These drugs are specified by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Rules and Regulations.

Here are examples of drugs of which the EPA mandates proper disposal:

  • Warfarin
  • Epinephrine
  • Phentermine
  • Physostigmine
  • Chlorambucil
  • Mitomycin C
  • Resperine
  • Cyclophosphamide

Ideally, it's best that all prescription medication be treated as hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste is first incinerated and then the ash is deposited into a hazardous waste landfill. Prescription medications collected during take-back programs are incinerated. Another option is to take your medications to a DEA-authorized collection site.

If there are no take-back programs or authorized collection sites in your area, the FDA recommends the following steps when disposing of medication:

  1. Combine medicines together but do not crush them.
  2. Mix the medicines with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds, dirt, or kitty litter.
  3. Place this mixture into a disposable container with a lid, such as an empty margarine tub, or into a sealable bag.
  4. Conceal or remove any personal information, including Rx number, on the empty containers by covering it with permanent marker or scratching it off. The sealed container with the drug mixture, and the empty drug containers, can now be placed in your household trash.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has looked into concerns that there are pharmaceutical drugs in the water we drink. They found that many of these substances are removed through conventional water treatment processes. Furthermore, the WHO states:

"Currently, analysis of the available data indicates that there is a substantial margin of safety between the very low concentrations of pharmaceuticals that would be consumed in drinking water and the minimum therapeutic doses, which suggests a very low risk to human health."

The WHO notes that pharmaceuticals in drinking water are an emerging issue where knowledge gaps still exist and will continue to review scientific evidence.

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  • Das R, Marty M, Underwood MC. Industrial Emissions, Accidental Releases, & Hazardous Waste. In: LaDou J, Harrison RJ. eds. CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 5e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013.

By Michael Bihari, MD
Michael Bihari, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician, health educator, and medical writer, and president emeritus of the Community Health Center of Cape Cod.