Why It's Important to Dispose Drugs Safely

​Improper drug disposal can lead to many problems for people and the environment. Proper disposal of drugs can prevent the negative and toxic effects on our environment that can take place if the drugs are not disposed of correctly. Safely disposing of drugs can also prevent them from getting into the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

hand throwing pills in rubbish bin
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Why It's Important to Safely Get Rid of Medications

Here are three scenarios illustrating why it's important to carefully and regularly use the right methods to dispose of any drugs; prescription drugs, over-the-counter pills, vitamins, natural supplements, veterinary drugs, illegal drugs, and narcotics:

  • Your neighbor has been taking birth control pills (or antibiotics, or mood enhancers, hormone replacements, or other drugs) for years, but never took them all. So she flushed her leftovers down the toilet, and now they are part of your community's water supply. You've been drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing in them every day.
  • An elderly neighbor takes many medications. When she isn't looking, the teenage boy next door who does odd jobs and runs errands for her pockets some of those drugs then sells them at school or takes them himself to get high.
  • An older gentleman has developed problems with his sight and can no longer read well. He has trouble distinguishing among the many medicines and pill bottles in his bathroom and suffers additional medical problems because he takes the wrong drug or an expired drug.

Drugs in the Environment and Water Supply

When any substance, including a drug, is flushed down the toilet, it becomes a part of the water supply. It can leech into groundwater if you have a septic system. If you are on a community sewer system, it enters the water supply after wastewater treatment. While treatment systems are designed to remove foreign substances from the water before putting it back into the public water supply, they do not process water to remove drugs. Any wastewater that results from treatment is returned to the environment. That includes drugs that have been flushed, plus the residual from drugs that have passed through patients and then evacuated (urine or feces).

The environment suffers. The substances become a part of both water and soil. Traces of drugs from human prescriptions have been found in plants, fish, and other animals that drink or swim in lakes, streams, and oceans. Genetic alterations in plants, fish, and animals have been observed and reported.

Our drinking and household water come from the environment. It's affected no matter whether you get your water from a public supply or from a well. Studies of drinking water supplies in the United States have reported traces of pharmaceutical drugs in every metropolitan area's water sources.

Our bodies process the drugs we take and eliminate by-products when we urinate and defecate, but we can't prevent that source from entering the waste stream. But properly throwing away the original drugs when they are no longer needed can prevent leaching into the ecosystem.

Drugs Get Into the Wrong Hands

Drug abuse is a well-recognized and rampant problem. When drugs are not disposed of correctly, they can easily fall into the wrong hands. It may be a teenager who steals them for his own use, a curious toddler who puts everything in her mouth, or a trash picker combing through a dumpster.

When drugs are prepared properly for disposal, they can't be identified easily. That lack of easy identification can keep the wrong person from ingesting them.

Taking the Wrong Drugs or Expired Drugs

When drugs go out-of-date or aren't well labeled, it's easy for someone who is sick or confused, or simply can't see well, to swallow the wrong ones. One way to prevent problems for these patients is to dispose of drugs as they expire or as they are no longer required. Then carefully label the right ones with larger or more colorful words to help the patient take the right ones.

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