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How to Safely Dispose Old Medicines

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 chose can have a direct effect on the safety and the health of the environment.

Learn more about your options and how to safely dispose all of those old or unused medications.

Environmental Concerns:

Residues of birth control pills, antidepressants, painkillers, shampoos, and many other pharmaceuticals and personal care products have been found in water, 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 better sensing technology. 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 Some chemicals, however, are flushed or washed down the drain when people discard outdated or unused drugs.

New Federal Guidelines:

Recent federal guidelines state that prescription or over-the-counter medications should not be flushed down the toilet or poured down a sink unless patient information material specifically states that it is safe to do so. To read the official press release, click here.

How to Properly Dispose Medications:

  • Check with your police department to see if they have a drug collection program.
  • Check to see if your community household hazardous waste program collects medications. They must have law enforcement officials present.
  • If no collection options exist, follow these steps:
    • Remove all personal identification from prescription bottles.
    • Mix all unused drugs with coffee grounds, kitty litter, or another undesirable substance.
    • Place this mixture in a sealed container before disposing in the 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 Resources:

Last Updated
Adapted from Pediatric Environmental Health, 3rd Edition (Copyright © American Academy of Pediatrics 2011)
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.
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