How to Dispose of Prescription Drugs

If you have prescription drugs in your home that you no longer need, or that have passed the expiration date, then it is vital that you dispose of them properly and safely. Prescription drugs that end up in the wrong hands (or in the stomach of a beloved pet) can be very dangerous and lead to tragic consequences.

Unfortunately, if you are like a lot of people, you may just toss them loosely in the garbage or flush them down the toilet. Tossing or emptying loose pills into the garbage is an absolute no-no. If you have toddlers, young children, or even adolescents at home, they could accidentally or purposely get their hands on any medications you have put in the garbage. Toddlers and young children can get into garbage and put the discarded medications in their mouth, thinking they are candy or just out of curiosity. Teens may sneak them out of the garbage because they want to experiment with them, or because they have already tried the drugs (or even worse, have developed an addiction) and know that once in the garbage, you’ll never miss them or know they found them.

Another danger of putting prescription pills or liquids in the garbage that many people don’t even consider is that your pets, your neighbors’ pets, or other animals in the neighborhood could end up ingesting them. Dogs and cats often get into garbage, especially once it’s outdoors. These drugs can be highly toxic to animals causing serious health problems or death. Squirrels, birds, and rodents may also ingest them once in the garbage. Even if you are not concerned about these animals, they are prey for outdoor cats. If the drugs are in their system they can harm any cat that eats that animal.

Whether or not prescription medications should be flushed down the toilet or poured down the sink is a somewhat controversial subject. While some say it is acceptable and safe, others disagree. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated that these drugs end up in the water and soil, and can be harmful to wildlife and fish, as well as to their environment.

Flushing these drugs or pouring them down the drain means they might also end up in your drinking water. Investigators have found that all sorts of prescription drugs are present in the water used by millions of people in our country. Do you really want anyone in your family to be drinking water polluted with things such as mood stabilizers, contraceptives, or antibiotics? Definitely something to seriously consider the next time you go to flush old medications down your toilet!

So what is the best way to dispose of prescription medications? Following are some helpful guidelines:

Read the label to see if there are specific instructions for disposing of the medication. You can also check the insert for instructions as well. Some medications have been considered safe for flushing by the FDA (although many environmentalists disagree for reasons mentioned above, so you may want to keep that in mind). If so, the instructions will indicate this. If they do not, or if there are no instructions, do not flush them down the toilet.

You can put prescription medications in the garbage, but use the following precautions:

  • First, mix prescription pills, liquids, and forms of drugs with something that has a strong and unappealing smell or taste, such as used cat litter, cayenne pepper, or coffee grounds. With pills, add some liquid as well so they dissolve. The unpleasant substance will help deter animals and children, as well as disguise it from anyone who might purposely dig through your garbage.
  • Put the mixture into a non-see-through container that has a tight lid or can be sealed, such as a plastic laundry detergent bottle or a coffee can with a lid. Tape the container shut with duct tape or other heavy duty tape to keep the lid on tightly. This will help prevent the drug from leaking out of the garbage.
  • Don’t put the container with the discarded medication on the top of the other garbage where it is easily accessible. Cover it with other garbage instead.
  • You may also want to check to see if your community has a program for unused prescription drugs. These are often referred to as a take-back program.
  • Before recycling or discarding any prescription containers, be sure to remove the label or scratch out your personal information to protect your privacy.
  • Use these same disposal methods for over the counter medications as well.

One last thing: Never, ever, give expired prescription medications or medications that you no longer need to someone else to use, such as a friend or family member. A medication that was prescribed for you could be very toxic to someone else. Don’t try to play doctor. The medication could be dangerous due to other medications the person may be taking, or because of their unique medical history.