Horror Story at the Pharmacy Counter or How Not to Dispose of Your Unused Pharmaceuticals

Originally posted January 11, 2012, we're sharing this again today for National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, October 26, 2013.

Recently, I was filling a prescription at a local pharmacy and I brought some unused prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications with me to give to the pharmacist for proper disposal.

“Oh we don’t take those anymore. Just flush them down the toilet,” said the pharmacist (with a completely straight face).

I was horrified! Toilets are not garbage cans, and wastewater treatment systems are not designed to handle all the crap stuff we try to put through them. With some effort, I unclenched my jaw, collected my bag of drugs and left. I have since taken my pharmacological needs elsewhere.

I checked the website for the City of New York (where I live) and found it instructs people not to flush prescription drugs down the toilet or drain unless the patient information instructs them to. The site encouragingly offers that “there is no way to completely eliminate the use of pharmaceuticals and personal care products; however when you do use them follow directions and use them sparingly to reduce the amount that goes unused and eventually ends up in the environment.”

“What’s the big deal? This is how I've always handled my unused meds,” you might be saying to yourself. The big deal is that emerging contaminants aren’t regulated and we don’t know how long-term, low-level exposure will impact us or the critters who depend on surface waters for their survival.

Pharmaceuticals, personal care products and a whole host of other compounds, which are lumped together and classified as ‘emerging contaminants,' are increasingly being detected in surface water, and they could be problematic. According to the Product Stewardship Institute, “Waste pharmaceuticals pose four types of potential threats: they can enter the environment and impact aquatic organisms and potentially drinking water, and they can contribute to accidental poisonings and drug abuse.”

Good reasons to find another way to get rid of your unused meds.

The Government Accountability Office has even recommended that “the Administrator of [the Environmental Protection Agency] establish a workgroup or other formal mechanism to coordinate research on pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in drinking water.” In addition, many states have recognized the need to address unused meds (and other emerging contaminants). In New York State, for example, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has a plan of action that includes:

  • Combining efforts with other states;
  • Continuing to study the environmental impacts;
  • Participating in a national system for the management of unwanted pharmaceuticals; and
  • Beginning a public education and awareness campaign.

On DEC’s website they offer dates for household drug collection, information about the National Drug Take Back Day and locations (by county) for medication drop offs. Your disposal options will vary by state and even by county or town and there is no one national source of information that covers all of these entities, so check with your local or state government websites to learn about drop off locations or collection dates in your area. You may even have a collection center in your community.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, if there is no Take Back program in your area, unused chemicals should be mixed into something unpalatable, like kitty litter or used coffee grounds, placed into a plastic bag and put into the garbage. The site has a list of substances, like Percocet and Oxycodone, that are actually okay to flush (to avoid overdose by children or pets or abuse).

Anyway, back to that bag of drugs I was trying to get rid of. The unfortunate ending to this story is that I had the bag near some recycling and my roommate scooped it all up and put it in the recycling bin. I think there was an almost full prescription of Percocet in there from some long ago surgery. I hope it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. I hope someone took some responsibility and looked up how to properly dispose of everything in that bag. Seems as though I should have flushed them after all.


Check out this slideshow from the FDA about Prescription Drug Takeback Programs.