Medication Disposal: an Environmental Issue and What Can We Do About It

10 Jan

The safe and responsible disposal of medications is an important public health initiative that directly relates to both pharmacists and consumers. Improper storage and disposal of expired or unused medications has the potential for negative consequences, including harm to the environment, accidental poisonings, and drug diversion.  

Many wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove medications from the water supply, which ultimately leads to ecological and possibly human harm.  A study completed by the Associated Press shows that  drinking water across the United States yield antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones.  Multiple researchers have found that medications have  produced unwanted effects on fish, plant species, bacteria, and the surrounding wildlife.

In addition,  Over 70% of prescription pain relievers abuser obtain them from friends or relatives from medicine cabinets and trash.   In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010 into law. This law will eventually allow patients who lawfully obtain controlled substances to transfer them to a government or private entity for disposal. However, the DEA still has to pass regulations to implement this law and, until that occurs, take-back programs will continue to be limited in their ability to collect and dispose of controlled substances.

There have been several organizations and programs created to educate and to offer means to dispose unused medications.  One of which is ( is an online resource designed to assist with locating medication disposal programs offered through independent community pharmacies.   Another is The Drug Take-Back Network ( was created by the Product Stewardship Institute, a national environmental institute.  They offer a national directory of onetime, occasional or ongoing take-back programs for consumers and health care professionals.  In addition, the FDA and The White House recommend mixing unwanted medications with coffee grounds or kitty litter to make them undesirable, placing the mixture in a sealed container, and throwing it out with the household trash.

Above information is credited to Kimberly Burns, Rph, JD and G Elliot Cook of Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) School of Pharmacy


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