With a little one at home who is about to start toddling, our family is deep in the throes of baby-proofing everything. From securing our TVs and bookshelves to affixing locks on our toilets, we are taking every precaution to prevent potential disaster at home. In the process of cleaning out our medicine cabinets, I came across a few expired prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.
Do I flush them? Do I throw them away? I wasn't sure, so I thought I'd take them to my local big-box pharmacy chain. Surely, the pharmacists there could take these meds back and dispose of them safely. Wrong. The pharmacy wouldn't accept them. Refusing to give up, I scoured the Internet for information and advice on what harm could be done if I flushed them or just threw them out in the trash and what alternative disposal methods existed. Here's what I found:
To flush or not to flush
Absolutely, never ever (unless the bottle specifically instructs you to do so) flush medicine down the toilet or wash it down the sink drain. Whether your home has a septic tank or is connected to municipal wastewater treatment services, flushing or disposing of medication down the drain is a major no-no. Medicines that make their way into a septic tank can eventually leach into and contaminate groundwater. Similarly, municipal wastewater treatment plants can't catch everything before the water is released into a river or lake. Your town may not use that particular river or lake as a source of drinking water, but another town downstream might. Plus, flushing or washing medications down the drain can make already bad conditions even worse for aquatic life. Fish on Prozac is a very real (and pretty disturbing) thing.
Taking out the trash
The FDA, DEA and EPA all give the same instructions for throwing medication out with the trash: Pills should be removed from their original packaging; mixed with an "undesirable substance," such as old coffee grounds or kitty litter; placed in a nondescript, sealed container, such as an old yogurt tub, and then placed in the trash. However, disposing of medications in the trash is problematic for a number of reasons.
Some sources recommend crushing medications and dissolving them in water before adding coffee grounds or kitty litter. This is dangerous. Crushed medications can be absorbed through exposed skin or inhaled. Expired medication is still chemically active, and absorbed or inhaled medication reaches the bloodstream faster than medicine that is taken orally. Crushed medications are also harder to control, as fine particles can remain behind and pose a continued threat to other people and pets in the home.
Just because it's in the garbage doesn't necessarily mean that your children or pets are safe. Even the most diligently monitored children can get into things they shouldn't at the moment it's least expected. Additionally, human-intended medications, often eaten from the trash, are the number one source of pet poisonings.
Medications that make it to the landfill can still pose a risk to humans and wildlife, either making their way into the water system through "garbage juice" that leaches into groundwater or being accidentally ingested by animals that are not deterred by coffee grounds or kitty litter.
There has to be another way
The EPA is currently investigating ways that pharmaceuticals and personal care products act as pollutants in the environment. While the jury is out, the best way to rid your home of unwanted, unused or expired medications is through a drug take-back event, surrender to an Authorized Collector or mail-back services. You can find organizations that accept unwanted meds or call your local government to inquire about government-sponsored take-back events or local ordinances that restrict what can be discarded in household trash. Some municipalities have banned medication disposal in household trash, and medications must be treated as a hazardous waste and specially collected.