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How to Safely Dispose of 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 choose can have a direct effect on the safety and the health of the environment.

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

Environmental Concerns:

Residues of birth control pills, antidepressants, painkillers, shampoos, and many other drugs and personal care products have been found in the water supply, 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 that we have better ways to detect them now. 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 Some chemicals, however, are flushed or washed down the drain when people discard outdated or unused drugs in the toilet or sink.

Federal Guidelines:

Federal guidelines state that prescription or over-the-counter medications should not be flushed down the toilet or poured down a sink unless the drug label or patient information material specifically states that it is safe to do so.  

How to Properly Dispose of Medications:

  • Check with your police department to see if they have a drug collection program.

  • Check to see if your community's household hazardous waste, trash, or recycling program collects medications. To do this, they must have law enforcement officials present. If no collection options exist, follow these steps:

    • Remove all personal identification, including the prescription (Rx) number, from prescription bottles by covering it with a marker or scratching it off.

    • Mix all unused drugs with coffee grounds, kitty litter, dirt, or another undesirable substance. Do this with both liquid medications and pills or capsules. Place this mixture in a sealed container before disposing in the trash. Place the empty medicine containers in the recycling or 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 Information & 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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