Safe, Proper Medication Disposal

| Posted On Apr 20, 2011 | By:

As we mentioned in a recent blog post about medication safety, unused medications, whether expired or simply no longer needed, should be disposed of to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands (or paws).

But how do you get rid of those medications? If you wash them down the drain or flush them away, they get into the water system.  Too much medication disposed of this way can be harmful to the environment. If you throw them in the trash, they can possibly get into the wrong hands or be found by animals.

The best way to dispose of most medications is to mix them with something unpalatable like coffee grounds or kitty litter and place the mixture into a sealed plastic bag.  Then, the bag can be placed in the household trash. When disposing of medications, it is wise to remove or obscure any personal information on the prescription vial. This keeps your medical information confidential.

For certain medications (e.g., strong narcotics, fentanyl pain patches), the FDA actually recommends that they are flushed down the toilet or sink.  The harm that can be done by these types of medications being discovered in the home or taken from the trash outweighs the trace amounts that would be added to the water supplies.  For example, the patches that contain narcotic medication, meant to be released over time, can cause dangerously decreased breathing or heart rates – leading to potentially fatal incidents – if they were to be handled by a child or pet. There are still small amounts of medication in the patch – even after it has been used for its full course – that can be toxic to someone for which the medication wasn’t intended.

Since the FDA limits the number and types of medication that can be disposed of in this way, only trace amounts of these types of drugs appear in the water system. Although this may run counter to your good environmental sense, in actuality, these types of drugs are already found in the water supply in safe, trace amounts, arriving there via natural human waste from the people who used the medication as prescribed.

Some states have donation programs for certain medications that are sealed and still in date. For example, Wisconsin will take back certain cancer treatments if they are still in their original packaging. There are organizations that take unused and unexpired HIV medications for donation. You can find donation programs if you search for “unused drug donations.”

National Take Back Day is an event organized by the DEA and the US Department of Justice.  They work with towns and local government agencies to provide safe and secure collection sites at which you can drop off unwanted or unused medications.  To find a collection site near you, please click here.

For additional information, the following websites may be useful to you:

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About Amy Vachon, PharmD

Amy Vachon, PharmD is Director of the Atrius Health Clinical Pharmacy Program and co-chair of the Atrius Health Pharmacy & Therapeutics Committee. She joined Harvard Vanguard in 1996 and has worked to grow the Clinical Pharmacy Program which provides services to patients at many of our Atrius Health locations. Prior to working at Atrius Health, Amy was the Assistant Director for Clinical Pharmacy Services at Beth Israel Hospital, and before that, she worked in the operating room at Tufts Medical Center as a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist in Anesthesia and Operating Room Pharmacy. Amy graduated with a Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Michigan, and completed a residency in pharmacy practice at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Amy is also passionate about creating the opportunity for work/life balance that allows every employee to be his or her best contributor to the workplace, and is the author, together with her husband, of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents (Perigee Penguin 2011). She’s the mother of two children and an avid amateur violinist in her spare time.

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