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How to Dispose of Old Medication Properly

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg | Jul 22, 2019

When in doubt about whether to dispose of old medication, members' best resources are their pharmacists. They can advise on the medication in question and inform members if the drug has really passed its prime.

If it has, members should know the proper way to dispose of old medication. Unfortunately, their health care provider may not tell them. Studies have shown that providers don't consistently educate patients on safe disposal methods. In one study in the Journal of Pharmaceutics, more than 80% of participants said they never received guidance about the best way to dispose of medications. Luckily, the union can help fill this education gap.

The Risks of Expired Medications

Handling expired medications properly is important for members' health, the well-being of friends and family, and the environment.

Members who take drugs that have lost their potency due to a change in chemical composition over time could be risking their health. Expired drugs might not effectively treat the condition for which they were prescribed. For example, an antibiotic that has lost its potency might fail to treat an infection, which could lead to an even more serious illness, according to

A survey found that around one-third of Americans didn't clean out their medicine cabinets in the previous year. This can endanger children or pets, who could accidentally access and ingest the drugs. Others in the household may also be tempted to improperly use the medication, risking their health. But simply tossing old pills into the trash may not suffice: Improperly discarding expired medications poses its own risks.

Even the environment is at risk. Until several years ago, flushing expired medications down the toilet was the norm. Now, the consensus is that flushing drugs is dangerous. Drugs poured down the drain or flushed down the toilet can seep into the ground and eventually end up in our water supply.

How to Safely Dispose of Drugs

There are several ways to safely dispose of medications. For a small number of drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually does recommend immediately flushing them down the toilet when a patient no longer needs them and a better option isn't available. This recommendation mostly concerns powerful narcotic pain medications for which, despite the environmental concerns, the risk of abuse is too high.

For most medications, the best way to dispose of an old medication is through a medicine take-back program, according to the FDA, and there are two types: periodic events and permanent collection sites. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) periodically holds National Prescription Drug Take-Back events, setting up temporary collection sites for unwanted prescription drugs in communities across the country. The events are typically held on Saturdays in April and October. Participants can search for the nearest public disposal location on a site created by the DEA.

Local law enforcement, clinics, retail pharmacies and long-term care facilities may also sponsor take-back events. Many hospitals also accept expired or unwanted medications. The MD Anderson Cancer Center, for example, accepts medications issued by its pharmacists year-round, but it can't keep controlled substances.

If members can't access a take-back program and flushing isn't recommended for their medication, the FDA says to throw that drug in the trash. It's safer for the environment than flushing, since medication thrown in the trash ends up incinerated or in landfills. To ensure a safe disposal, members should mix medicines with a substance to deter a person or animal from ingesting it, such as dirt, cat litter, sawdust or used coffee grounds. Then, the mixture should be placed in a sealed bag and put in the trash. Pill bottles and packaging should be stripped of all personal information before they're disposed of or recycled.

How should you educate members about handling expired medications? One option is to plan an event around a National Drug Take-Back day. Consider organizing a team outing during which members can drop off unused medications. You might also include information in your monthly union newsletter on how to safely dispose of drugs. Another option is to make an announcement during a union meeting.

By equipping your members with best practices for disposing of old and unwanted medications, you're helping to safeguard the health and well-being of both your members and their extended circle of family and friends.

With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.