Dispose of unused medications safely

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

Al wrote in, asking what she ought to do with unused medications, including some psychiatric drugs and controlled substances. It’s good to get those out of the house, safely—but how?

Parents should make sure to keep their homes free of unused medications. The misuse of prescription medications (usually narcotic painkillers) has surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the leading accidental cause of death in the US. A lot of these medicines, especially the ones that come into teenage hands, come from unused supplies lifted from parents. Teenagers don’t necessarily know what all of those pills do, and at least some of them are willing to gulp down handfuls just to see what will happen.

Toddlers, too, can find their way to unused, colorful vials in the medicine cabinet – some of which can kill with a single pill. And even adults really shouldn’t hoard antibiotics or other prescription meds. The risks are too high.

But what to do with all of these medicines? Tossing them down the a sink drain or flushing them down the toilet aren’t ideal. Water in municipal drains contributes to their accumulation in our drinking water (though even if we never flushed ‘em down, many are excreted in urine. There’s a pleasant thought.) The FDA does keep a list of “drugs you should flush,” consisting mostly of narcotics and similar medications that are just too dangerous to toss out any other way.

For most medicines, it’s safer to get them to a landfill rather than adding them to our water supplies. You can toss them into your household trash after mixing them with something disgusting, like cat litter, coffee grounds, or dirt. Alternatively, drugs can be incinerated along with other biomedical waste. I don’t know if most docs would agree to do this, but if my patients and families bring me leftover medications, I just add them to my “biohazard” box for transport and incineration. Doesn’t cost me much of anything to add a few vials now and then.

I’ve also seen drug stores selling mailing bags to return medications for destruction. The operative word, there, is ‘selling’—I think $4 for a bag. Not much, but 4 beans that you probably want to spend on something else!

What are you doing with that thing that we don't even know what it does?

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4 Comments on “Dispose of unused medications safely”

  1. Jack Says:

    Where we live, in Montgomery County, MD, the police have a drug drop off day a couple times a year where you can drop pills off at the station and they dispose of them properly for you. Very handy, though you do have to hang on to them until the drop off date arrives.


  2. Elina John Says:

    Really nice and helpful article on dispose of unused medications safely. We normally donate our unused medicine to the NGO for reuse it for some needy.


  3. Dr. Roy Says:

    Elina, I’m glad your company does that. Private individuals can’t typically donate any opened packages or unsealed vials of medications.


  4. Ellie Says:

    In the UK you can take unused medicines of any type to any pharmacy (not necessarily the one you originally obtained them from) and they will dispose of them for free. I take it that this isn’t the case in the US?


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