Getting rid of unneeded medicines: Out of sight is not out of mind

When Kate agreed to help clean her grandmother’s house, she had no idea that she’d find so many pill bottles! There seemed to be prescription drugs everywhere: one for high blood pressure, one for glaucoma, another for chest pain. . . it was a long list. By the time she was done cleaning, Kate had found thirty different medicine bottles. At least 15 of them were past their expiration dates. What was she supposed to do with all of these medicines?

It’s a serious problem

Although we know it’s important to do, getting rid of unused or outdated medicine is a big issue. In the past, we might have thrown old pills and pill bottles into the trash without thinking twice, but now we know that can sometimes be a disaster waiting to happen, especially if these are prescription pain medicines: Children or animals might find the medicine and swallow it, leading to disastrous consequences. And if prescription pain medicines killers are tossed and found, they might be given – or even sold – to someone who’s not supposed to have them.

If old pills actually reach a landfill, they’re still not home free: They could dissolve and leach into the groundwater.

In many cases, flushing drugs down the toilet may not be much better. Some medicines can hurt the bacteria that keep private septic systems running, and as we’ll see, public wastewater treatment plants have their own issues with medicine.

Unfortunately, we’re learning that all kinds of medicine – prescription and over-the-counter drugs – can “live on” even after they’ve left our homes.

The cross-country medicine tour

In 2007, the Associated Press (AP) took a cross-country, five-month look at what happens to medicine once it gets into our waste disposal systems. Wastewater treatment plants, for example, can pull a lot of pollutants out of waste water before sending the treated water back into rivers, lakes, or reservoirs. But there’s no way to filter flushed medicine out of the water before it has the chance to reach fish, other wildlife, and even our watershed supplies.

What the AP’s study found is eye-opening. All kinds of medicines, from antibiotics to sex hormones, are in public water that’s supplied to millions of Americans. While only trace amounts of these drugs were found in the tested water supplies, scientists don’t really know what the long-term effect of these medications may be – especially for the millions of people who normally wouldn’t be taking them in the first place.

Bull sharks and bass

People aren’t the only worry, either: Fish are already showing warning signs. A 2006 study found that nine out of 10 bull sharks in a Florida waterway tested positive for sertraline, a prescription anti-depressant. And scientists have found bass in the Potomac River with male and female reproductive organs.

Taking charge

So what are we supposed to do with medicine that we don’t need anymore?

There are an increasing number of “drug take-back programs”,  and “drug take-back days“, so that people will have an easy and safe way, right in their community, to get rid of old medicines.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy has set up some guidelines to help:

  • Don’t flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless the label (or the patient information that comes with the medicine) says to do so.
  • Note – there are some medicines that are considered to be an extra risk to the community and the manufacturer of these medicines may advise flushing, to be sure no one else can get them.
  • Call your city or county government or public health offices to find out if there’s a drug take-back program in your area. Your local pharmacy may know what to do as well.

If you don’t have any other options:

  • Take all of the unwanted pills out of their original containers, and put them in an old coffee can, an old margarine tub, or a sturdy plastic bag
  • Add some water to dissolve the pills
  • Add something like kitty litter or coffee grounds to soak up the liquid
  • Cover the container, put it into a sealed, unmarked plastic bag, and then put it into the trash
  • Throw pill bottles away by blacking out names and Rx numbers first, to protect your privacy
  • Take the extra time with medicine disposal now, to help keep other people safe, and to keep an environmental disaster from happening in the future


Office of National Drug Control Policy

The Drug Take-Back Network

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/ Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Consumer Health Information (Search on “drug disposal”)

U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health. (Search on “drug disposal AND environment”)