Where can we dispose of old medications?

Ms.roadrunner asked...

Where can we dispose of medication that we don't take? Like pain and other dangerous drugs? I know there is a program in Albuquerque, NM.

Expert Answer

Pharmacist William Simonson, also known as "Dr. Si", is a board-certified geriatric pharmacist who is dedicated to improving medication use by seniors. He is a pharmacy educator and is active in publishing and presenting to health professional and consumer audiences and has been active in the area of geriatrics and long-term care pharmacy practice for more than 35 years.

Your question is very timely. Proper disposal of unneeded medications is an issue that is currently undergoing national debate.

It's not uncommon for a person to find that they have a supply of medicines they no longer need for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they experienced an adverse side effect or they might have stopped taking the medicine because it wasn't benefitting them or perhaps the medicine's expiration date has passed. Whatever the reason containers of prescription and non-prescription medications can accumulate. Flushing them down the toilet is a common solution but there are serious environmental concerns since some medications have been found in our drinking water! Throwing them in the trash is another approach but pets and children might have access to them, with the possibility of poisoning. Disposal of opioid (narcotic) pain medications in the trash is especially dangerous because of the possibility of overdoes and death. Diversion of pain medications into the street drug scene is also a possibility. While discarding medicine in the trash seems simple it is not favored by landfill operators and the medicines can eventually find their way into our water supply. Some people dissolve unwanted medicines in water and mix the solution with kitty litter or coffee grounds and throw that in the trash to eliminate the chance of someone pulling a whole tablet out of the trash but that doesn't eliminate the environmental concerns.

When I discuss this issue with my pharmacist friends from Europe they are shocked that we don't have a unified national approach to disposal. In many European countries unused medicines are returned to the pharmacy for proper disposal in a high-temperature incinerator. This is the best approach and some municipalities in the US have begun drug "take back" programs where unneeded medicines are collected and disposed of in a safe and environmentally friendly manner by specialized disposal companies, but, at present these programs are few and far between.

Disposal is being addressed in the US by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Boards of Pharmacy and other groups. However, there is no agreement to date and it is likely that development of a unified national program will not happen in the near future.

In the meantime I suggest you contact your local pharmacist, state Board of Pharmacy and local police department to see if they know of a drug "take-back" program in your area.