Senior Health

10/1/2021 | By Annie Tobey

Bathroom cabinets often gather a host of medicines. Unlike antibiotics, which we take until they’re gone, many medications are acquired as needed: pain pills, sleep and anxiety medicines, cold medicines, etc. The leftovers that accumulate seem innocent enough. However, both their presence and improper disposal pose grave dangers, so it’s important to know how to dispose of unused medications.

Dangers of a medicine cache

Having a plethora of human and pet medications can be risky for anyone living in your home and for visitors.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports: “9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers, 4.9 million people misused prescription stimulants, and 5.9 million people misused prescription tranquilizers or sedatives in 2019. … A majority of misused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, often from the home medicine cabinet.”

I recall an incident from my childhood that is seared into my memory. I don’t know the exact details – I was in elementary school – but I know the fear I felt when my father had to be rushed to the hospital. Daddy had gotten up in the middle of the night to take an over-the-counter medicine. He didn’t turn on the bathroom light, so as not to disturb Mother. The two pills he mistakenly took were much stronger, possibly part of Mother’s cancer treatment, and he didn’t react well to them.

For many adults, perhaps the most persuasive reason to dispose of unused medications is young guests – like grandchildren and their friends.

Curious little ones may consume medications that look like candy or juice. Safe Kids Worldwide found that of 1.34 million child-related calls to poison control centers, 49% were about medicine – and 81% of those analyzed were for kids getting into medicine not meant for them. And in 49% of emergency room visits for medicine poisoning, says Mission Health, the child ingested medicine belonging to a relative – mostly from grandparents.

When he was 2 years old, my son wandered into my bedroom and ate a handful of Tums before I saw him. Fortunately, Tums aren’t harmful, but it did remind me to be more careful!

Teenagers may be tempted to take certain drugs, too. They may have heard of “fun” effects of some medications, and many teens enjoy doing things that are daring and thrilling. That coupled with a typical teen sense of invincibility makes for a dangerous mix. Opioid abuse is a national health crisis, and prescription opioid use is a risk factor for later heroin use.

Of course, these dangers remind us of the need for secure storage, too. To store current medications, use a lock box or locked cabinet and don’t carry medicines in an unsecured purse or bag.

Dangers of improper disposal

Although flushing medications down a toilet or pouring them down a drain seems logical, it may have negative repercussions. According to Waste Today Magazine, septic systems and wastewater facilities are not designed to remove medicinal chemicals from water.

These chemicals may not break down in the environment, explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine, so they “can pollute our water resources. This may affect fish and other marine life … [and] end up in our drinking water.”

How to Dispose of Unused Medications

Fortunately, there are ways to safely dispose of medications.

Take back programs

Public-sponsored take-back events offer the safest way to dispose of prescription and over-the-counter medications. These temporary drug collection sites allow for easy, safe disposal. Public agencies have the means and know-how to keep drugs out of the wrong hands and out of the environment.

  • The DEA hosts National Prescription Drug Take Back Day events several times each year.
  • Many local communities sponsor take back events and deactivation pouches. Check your local or state health agency or do a web search for “medication disposal near me.”
  • Many pharmacies act as “authorized collectors of drugs for destruction,” with permanent drop boxes for consumer use. Again, your local or state health agency or good friend Google can help you find one near you.

Household disposal

If you can’t find a convenient take-back program, you can throw medicines out with your household trash. Safe home disposal protects the environment. It also protects the community, keeping substances out of the hands of those who may abuse them.

How to dispose of unused medications at home:

  • Use a drug disposal pouch. These bags contain a substance that deactivates the medication. Pour the medicine in the pouch, add warm tap water until the bag is about half full, gently shake, seal, and toss in the trash.
  • DIY. Mix the medicine with unpleasant garbage such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds (don’t crush pills or capsules). Place the mixture into a sealed plastic bag or other sealed container. Toss it in the trash. Remove your Rx number and personal information from the medicine bottle. Toss or recycle the container or wash thoroughly and use for small household items.

The flush list!

If you don’t have immediate access to a take back location and keeping the drug poses serious risks, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends flushing it immediately – but only if the drug is on the approved “flush list.”

While acknowledging the dangers of flushing, the FDA says, “The known risk of harm, including toxicity and death, to humans from accidental exposure to medicines on the flush list far outweighs any potential risk to human health and the environment from flushing these unused or expired medicines.” But again, the FDA says, “Don’t flush your medicine unless it is on the flush list.”

Knowing how to dispose of unused medications properly is an easy way to protect your family, your community, and the environment.

Related: How to Practice Safe Medication Management

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey