Expired Medication Disposal: The Green Way to Dispose of Old or Unused Medications

Protect The Environment by Safely Disposing of Medication

An investigative report by the Associated Press (AP) in March 2008 found that trace levels of many common drugs were found in drinking water supplies throughout the country, raising concerns about the impact these may have on public health. The report stresses that water supplies can become contaminated simply because unabsorbed medication in the body is passed by urine and other sources into wastewater (and most wastewater treatment plants don't remove all traces of drugs). But another- and potentially even greater- source of contamination is the improper disposal of unused or expired medications.

Flushing the old medications down the toilet is a guarantee that they'll end up in the water supply, and even throwing them in the trash likely means they will end up in a landfill and eventually contaminate the groundwater, leading to medication contaminations of lakes, rivers, and streams.

How You Can Help Protect Our Water

Today, more and more pharmacies and clinics are offering medication disposal programs. Ask your pharmacist if you can return expired or unused medication to the pharmacy for safe disposal or if the pharmacy sponsors periodic medication disposal drives. Ask the staff at your physician's office as well. If your pharmacy or health care provider's office does not have these facilities, ask what they recommend. You may have to call more than one pharmacy to locate a medication return facility.

Another potential source of information is your local government's hazardous waste facility, which should be listed on the government Web site. You may also check the Web site for your health insurance provider; for example, Group Health, based in Seattle, provides a list of approved medication-return facilities for members on its Web site.

Unfortunately, the area of safe disposal of medications is an emerging concern without established guidelines from governmental or private industries. Pharmacies and clinics are not required to take back unused medications (unlike in many other countries, where medication-disposal programs are mandatory), and you may even be told to flush the medications down the toilet or throw them away. Government agencies are still working on the problem of establishing and regulating "take back" facilities for drugs, so finding the most environmentally-sound way to dispose of your old medications may still require some persistence on your part.

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Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


"How to Dispose of Unused Medicines"
Food and Drug Administration Consumer Updates