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Prescriptions, Drugs 101: Proper Disposal of Medications


In the past, a common practice to dispose of medications was to flush them down the toilet or rinse them down a sink. But this method has been shown to be a hazard to our environment by adding small amounts of drugs to our water systems. The United States Geological Survey found in a 1999 study of U.S. streams that 80 percent of streams contained detectable levels of substances from common medications.

In an August 2008 USA Today article, an Associated Press report cited, “A vast array of pharmaceuticals – including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones – have been found in the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans.”

Because findings of these trace amounts of substances in water systems is an emerging environmental issue, the long-term effects on the potential harm to humans is not clear, but have been shown to impact fish and frogs. Wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to remove these substances from surface, drinking and ground water.

To dispose of unused or expired medications, check with local pharmacies to see if they take drugs back routinely or during periodic service programs. Pharmacies are not required to do so. Local Michigan household hazardous waste collection or recycling centers may also collect unused medications. Some physicians may also provide this service.

If local drug collection services are not an option, everyone can help to reduce their impact on this growing environmental and potential health problem by following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines for disposing of prescription and over-the-counter drugs as follows:

Keep drugs in their original container (most are already child-proof and have water-tight lids) and scratch out your personal information from the label with permanent marker. To prepare drugs for disposal (by double-bagging) in the trash, reduce their appeal to children and pets:

  • For solid medications (pills, capsules): Add a small amount of water to partially dissolve them. Then replace the lid and seal the container with duct tape.
  • For liquid medications: Add enough salt, kitty litter, coffee grounds or other nontoxic substance to make the mixture undesirable to a child or anyone else for eating. Then replace the lid and seal the container with duct tape and place in a zip lock bag.
  • For blister packages with pills: Wrap packages in multiple layers of duct tape.
  • For ampules, vials and IV bags: Open them only to scratch out personal information, but do not destroy the packaging. Wrap packages in multiple layers of duct tape to minimize breakage and place in a non-transparent container, like an empty yogurt or margarine tub.
  • Do not flush drugs down a toilet or rinse down a sink unless the drug label or patient information explicitly advises it. Otherwise, follow the above directions.

Prescription pain killers (controlled substances) can only be accepted by a pharmacy or waste/recycle center if it adheres to federal Drug Enforcement Agency arrangements. A health care provider can also advise you on the disposal of chemotherapy drugs, which may also require special handling.