​If your medicine cabinet is filled with expired or unused prescription medications, it is time for some housecleaning. As time passes, medicines may lose their effectiveness. The disposal method you choose can have a direct effect on the safety and the health of the environment. Learn more about your options and how to safely dispose of all those old or unused medications.

Environmental Concerns:

Residues of
birth control pills,
antidepressants, painkillers, shampoos, and many other drugs and personal care products have been found in the water supply, in trace amounts. These chemicals are flushed into rivers from sewage treatment plants or leach into groundwater from septic systems. The discovery of these substances in water probably reflects that we have better ways to detect them now. The health effects, if any, from exposure to these substances in water is not yet known. In many cases, these chemicals enter water when people excrete them or wash them away in the shower. Some chemicals, however, are flushed or washed down the drain when people discard outdated or unused drugs in the toilet or sink.

How to Properly Dispose of Medications:

  • Follow any specific disposal instructions on the prescription drug labeling or patient information that accompanies the medicine. Do not flush medicines down the sink or toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
  • If no disposal instructions are provided on the drug labeling or patient information, then:
    • Check with your police department to see if they have a drug collection program.
    • Check to see if your community’s household hazardous waste, trash, or recycling program collects medications. To do this, they must have law enforcement officials present.
  • ​If no disposal instructions are provided on the drug labeling and no collection options exist, then follow these steps:
    • Remove all personal identification, including the prescription (Rx) number, from prescription bottles by covering it with a marker or scratching it off.
    • ​Mix all unused drugs with coffee gr​ounds, kitty litter, dirt, or another undesirable substance. Do this with both liquid medications and pills or capsules. Place this mixture in a sealed container before disposing in the trash. Place the empty medicine containers in the recycling or trash.
  • Talk to your local pharmacist if you have any questions. As medication experts, pharmacists are available to guide you on how to properly dispose of your unused medications.​

Additional Information & Resources:

  • Medication Safety (Video)
  • How to Dispose of Unused Medicines (FDA.gov)
  • Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know (FDA.gov)
  • How to Dispose of Medicines Properly (EPA.gov)
Last Updated
9/5/2017
Source
Council on Environmental Health (Copyright © 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics)

The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances. 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. Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  • 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. Thanks for your feedback!


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