Medication Disposal:

How to correctly get rid
of unused medication

Med Disposal

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IntroductionWhy Is Medication Disposal Important?

Medication Disposal Intro

Take a deep dive into the back of your bathroom cabinets and you're almost
guaranteed to find a bottle or two of medication you've been prescribed over the
years. And, although it's likely to have been given to you to help cure a temporary issue that you've not given any thought to for quite some time, hanging onto it is something that we're all tempted to do.

However, while keeping a stash of unused or expired medication might seem like a good idea, it could actually cause more harm than good if the issue it's been designed to treat were ever to come back. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first being that medication past its expiration date loses some of its potency over time. And, while it is usually still safe to consume a couple of years past its expiration date, it will eventually become ineffective.

This is especially true if it's been sitting unused for many years. So while you might think you're saving yourself a trip to your local pharmacy by taking expired medication, you won't be curing your ailment as effectively as you could be.

 

 

 

It's not only expired medication that needs to be disposed of, though. If you're
keeping a supply of medication that has done its job and you no longer need it, you're increasing the chances of it falling into the wrong hands.

This means the medication could potentially be accidentally ingested by a young child which could result in a trip to the emergency room or, even worse, a fatality.

Disposing of your unused and expired medication is the best way to prevent any of the above situations from occurring. However, it's not as simple as throwing your medication into your kitchen bin or flushing it down the toilet. In fact, improper disposal of medication has many consequences that can affect the environment and the people around us in ways you would never have thought.

 

The Consequences Of Improper Medication Disposal

MD Steps

So, what exactly are the consequences of improper medication disposal? The majority of them are environmental issues that can have adverse effects not only on animals and nature, but could even cause problems for other humans.

Let's take a more in-depth look at some of these risk-factors below.

 

Unintended Use By Others

We've touched on this briefly before, but one of the most horrifying things that can happen when medication hasn't been properly disposed of is being accidentally used by another person.

Children are at the greatest risk here. Small, inquisitive fingers could easily find their way into your household waste and, with so many medications being brightly colored, could be mistaken for candy. It doesn't bear thinking about what the consequences here could be, which makes it all the more important to keep in mind.

 

We're all human too and, with that, comes human error. This is especially true if you're not feeling great and you feel the need to take medication. Not disposing of your unused medication could result in you accidentally taking something that won't only be of no use to your current condition, but could also be dangerous for those around you.

 

Illegal Distribution

Simply throwing a container of unused medication into your household trash leaves it at risk of being discovered. And, should it fall into the wrong hands, the medication you've thrown away could be sold and distributed illegally.

Drug-abuse is an issue that many people face from all over the world, so by ensuring that your medication is being disposed of properly you'll be playing a part in making certain prescription drugs less accessible.

 

In some cases, the medication could even be re-bottled and under-handedly sold as usable when it has, in fact, expired. This could then create health problems for the person that purchased it.

 

NEGATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS INCLUDE

DRUG TRACES IN DRINKING WATER

One of the most common mistakes people make when disposing of medication is to flush them down the toilet or let their garbage disposal chew them up before washing them away. However, the water that you're using to dispose of your medication doesn't just disappear, never to be used again!

 

Water-Image

Instead, it eventually finds its way into a water treatment plant. And, once it arrives there, it goes through many processes that turn it into drinking water. To give you a better idea of this, you can find a full breakdown of all the stages the water goes through before it's returned to the water supply below:

Stage 1 - Pre-treatment:

Wastewater is pushed through bar screens that remove larger items such as garbage, tree limbs, diapers, and leaves. Grit-chambers are also used at this stage to remove large stones and pieces of glass. Grease and fat floating on top of the water are skimmed off during the pre-treatment phase, too.

Stage 2 - Primary Treatment:

The pre-treated water is now collected in sedimentation tanks and allowed to stand still while the power of gravity settles any smaller particles on the bottom of the tank. Mechanical scrapers then remove the collected sediment.

Stage 3 - Secondary Treatment:

The wastewater is then pushed through to a second set of basins. It is then agitated and aerated, and beneficial microorganisms are added to the water. These microorganisms break down microscopic organic material into sludge.

 

Stage 4 - Sludge Treatment:

Once the sludge has formed, gravity is used to separate it from the treated water. There are various ways in which sludge can be removed from water including being pumped into tanks of anaerobic bacteria that produce methane and, in turn, power the water treatment plant.

Stage 5 - Release:

Once the sludge has been removed, the remaining water is further treated by removing phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients. It is then disinfected using chlorine or ultraviolet light and then released back into the water supply.

Despite going through all of these stages, the chemicals found in some medications are able to survive and are then released into the water supply. This is especially true for stronger medications such as antidepressants, antibiotics, steroids, and female sex hormones.

Once the chemicals from these types of medication enter the water supply, they can create a plethora of health problems. They could also have a potentially fatal effect on anybody that might be allergic to the chemicals they contain.

 

SOIL CONTAMINATION

Think about where your household waste goes once it's been collected. Anything recyclable will get a new lease on life and be turned into something useful. Your unrecyclable materials, however, will be added to the landfill. And, although it will take many years to break down, leakages occur and this goes directly into the soil.

With this in mind, any medication that you've disposed of by throwing into your household waste has the potential to leak out of its packaging and find its way into the earth. But what are the consequences of soil contamination on the environment?

It's a ‘circle of life' situation here. As the earth naturally shifts and rainwater washes soil from one place to another, it eventually finds its way into areas where crops are being grown. The chemicals within this soil are then passed into the plants, and two possible outcomes occur.

The first of these is direct ingestion by humans. This means that any fruits or vegetables grown in the soil will contain the chemicals that the medication contaminated the soil with, and are then eaten first-hand once they find their way into your kitchen.

The second outcome is second-hand ingestion. This comes from meat products and means that any crops or grass that the animal was fed will contaminate the meat with the medication. And, as they make their way through the food chain, those chemicals are then ingested by you.

Soil contamination can also lead to further water contamination. This is because as it has nothing growing in to keep it anchored to the ground, it becomes more susceptible to erosion through wind and rain. Eventually, this causes the contaminated soil to enter bodies of water where it adds to the toxic load.

Even if the water it works its way into isn't already contaminated, the chemicals in the soil will leach out and be released into the water.

ECOSYSTEM DISRUPTION

The contamination of water and soil doesn't just have an effect on human life.

The ecosystem of the entire planet can be affected by improper medication disposal. Chemically-contaminated water can find its way into coastal waters and cause severe damage to aquatic life and delicate ecosystems.

Ecosystem-Image

One such effect of contaminated water on aquatic life is stunted growth and the deformation of cells occurring on shellfish that have ingested the chemicals contained within beta-blockers.

There are also many other effects that chemically-contaminated water can have on aquatic life and ecosystems. These include:

Chemical Poisoning:

Simply by ingesting or inhaling the chemicals contained within contaminated water, fish and other aquatic animals could get poisoned and die.

Oxygen Depletion:

Some chemicals found in medication can cause an increase in algae growth. And, if algae growth gets out of control (a phenomenon known as eutrophication) it starves the oxygen levels within the water. This, in turn, can cause suffocation for aquatic animals.

Starvation:

As smaller aquatic organisms die off due to chemical exposure of oxygen depletion, the food source of larger fish and animals starts to become scarce. And, as the food supply decreases, the risk of death by starvation increases.

Aquatic Vegetation:

Aquatic plants and vegetation also make up a large part of the ecosystem's food chain and, just like all living things, aquatic plants need food to survive. However, aquatic vegetation that has ingested chemicals will suffer from cellular damage and not be able to photosynthesis into strong plants. This leads to them dying and, as a result, the food supply becoming even scarcer.

 

Loss of Habitat:

As well as being a food source, aquatic plants make up a vast part of the aquatic habitat. Fish and other animals depend on them for shelter and, as they become exposed to chemicals, the plants these aquatic creatures call home begin to disappear.

Extinction:

Eventually, all of the above issues can overpower ecosystems and could result in entire species becoming extinct. From the information outlined above, it's clear why disposing of medication using water is never a good idea. But what effects does chemical contamination have on soil?

Soil that has been contaminated with medication can even prevent plant life from being able to establish at all. This doesn't only potentially have a damaging effect on the food supply, but on the environment overall.

And, as plant life is unable to set root and grow healthily, the surrounding wildlife is left without a place to call home. Even if some plants do manage to set seed in chemically contaminated soil, the wildlife that depends on those plants as a source of food is left at a higher risk of exposure to chemical poisoning.

FEMINIZATION OF FISH

We've described the devastating effects of  chemical contamination on aquatic ecosystems above, however, there is another surprising effect that some medication is having on fish. It comes from the incorrect disposal of human contraceptives and antidepressants, and it's known as the feminization of fish.

 

Fish-Image

This has resulted in several species of fish changing gender and, in some cases, even creating intersex species with eggs in their testicles. Remarkable as this is, it's actually a very important thing to note for two reasons.

The first of these being that, as more and more fish change from male to female, the reproduction rate goes down. This means that the species is at an increased risk of extinction through not being able to reproduce.

 

Secondly, as the reproduction rate begins to go down, the food supply for both humans and other aquatic species decreases. This can lead to the starvation and eventual extinction of other species that depend on large fish numbers as a reliable source of food.

Medication Disposal - Meds

What Medicines Should You Throw Away?

Knowing what medication to throw away and keep can be a confusing thing to decipher. This is especially true if you find some that has no signs of any expiration date, and you're unsure of when it was prescribed.

As a general rule, it's always better to adopt the motto: “If you don't know, then it can go!” This should be applied to very old medicine, anything that has gone past the expiration date, and medication that you simply can't remember being prescribed.

This rule doesn't only apply to prescription medications either. Anything you've purchased over-the-counter from your local pharmacy should be treated in the same way. This includes:

 

 

  • Paracetamol
  • Ibuprofen
  • Cough Medication
  • Throat Lozenges
  • Tylenol
  • Epsom Salts

 

Taking any of the above medications past their expiration date or, even worse, rolling the dice and taking them without knowing how old they are won't help with your ailment and could potentially make things a lot worse!

 

Medication Disposal - Truck

HOW TO SAFELY DISPOSE OF MEDICATIONS: a guide

Medication Disposal - Bin

As a general rule, it's a good idea to give your medicine cabinets a six-monthly inspection. This will stop bottles and containers from building up and becoming unmanageable. It will also give you the opportunity to properly dispose of any medication that is no longer needed.

Here are some things you should pay attention to when you carry out your inspection, each of which is an indication as to whether it should be thrown away:

  • Check if it has passed its expiration date
  • Check if the packaging is in good condition
  • Make sure that cross-contamination with other medicines hasn't occurred

According to the FDA, medicine take-back options are the preferred way to safely dispose of most types of unneeded medicines. You can dispose of medicines at a local DEA-registered collector, which will safely and securely collect and dispose of pharmaceuticals containing controlled substances and other medicines. Authorized permanent collection sites may be in retail pharmacies, hospital or clinic pharmacies, and law enforcement facilities. Contact your local pharmacy for more information.

Medication Disposal - Stove

MEDICATION INCINERATION PROCESS

Medications are finally transported to an incinerator where they're destroyed in an environmentally-friendly manner.

These are all very important points, but the biggest thing to think about is whether or not you actually need the medication anymore. Are the pills you're thinking of throwing away left over from a previous condition? Then it's time to chuck them!

So, just how is the best way to safely dispose of your unused medications without causing any environmental damage or potentially putting other people at risk? There are a few options available to you depending on your circumstances. Let's explore these below.

on your own

You should always try and use a medication disposal service to throw away unused medicine. However, everybody's circumstances are different and this
isn't always an option. So, if you'd prefer to do things by yourself, following the steps below is the best way of getting rid of any medication safely at
home.

1
Medication Disposal - Mix
MixOld Medicines With An Unpleasant Substance

One really good way to prevent your unused medication from being interfered with or used by anybody else is to mix it with an unpleasant substance. By doing this, you'll be able to throw your medicine away in your household waste with a reduced fear of it falling into the wrong hands.

Begin by removing the medication from its original container. If the medication is in pill form, do not crush it or open the plastic capsules to empty out the contents. This could result in residue being left on your surfaces and leaves you at the risk of possible cross-contamination.

Take the pills and mix them together with a substance that nobody is likely to want to sift through. Some example of these are:

Think about what you would avoid touching when placing garbage into your household waste. The chances are if you wouldn't go near it, then neither will anybody else. Try and avoid anything that is brightly colored too, as this is going to be far less appealing to an inquisitive child.

2
Medication Disposal - Place
PLACEIn Sealed Bag Or Container

One really good way to prevent your unused medication from being interfered with or used by anybody else is to mix it with an unpleasant substance. By doing this youll be able to throw your medicine away in your household waste with a reduced fear of it falling into the wrong hands.

Begin by removing the medication from its original container. If the medication is in pill form, do not crush it or open the plastic capsules to empty out the contents. This could result in residue being left on your surfaces and leaves you at the risk of possible cross-contamination.

Take the pills and mix them together with a substance that nobody is likely to want to sift through. Some example of these are:

Think about what you would avoid touching when placing garbage into your household waste. The chances are if you wouldnt go near it, then neither will anybody else. Try and avoid anything that is brightly colored too, as this is going to be far less appealing to an inquisitive child.

3
Medication Disposal - Scratch
SCRATCH OUTPersonal Information

Now turn your attention to the packaging that your medication came in. Prescribed medication in particular has a lot of information that you don't want falling into the wrong hands once your household waste leaves your property.

The main piece of information you don't want anybody to know is your personal information. Your name and address are most likely going to be printed on the label and if it were to be made available to the wrong person, you could find yourself a victim of identity theft. There's also the risk of a home invasion.

Scratching out all the information on your medication's packaging also stops anybody from learning what medicine it is that you've been prescribed. This acts as a further invasion of your privacy.

So, take a pen and completely block out any information. Some labels are easy to peel off too, so it's worth removing the label once you've scratched out all of your information. This will make it even harder to find. Once that's done, dispose of the original container.

4
Medication Disposal - Throw
THROWInto Household Trash

Finally, place the mixed-up medication in your household waste. To keep it even further away from any potential accidents, it's a good idea to sink it as deeply as possible into your bin. The layer of waste on top will then keep it better concealed and, as more trash is added to the top, it will sink further down into the bin.

Planting it deeply into your household waste also reduces the risk of it spilling out if your trash can is accidentally knocked over. And, if this does happen, the sealed container you've used will keep it well concealed and out of harm's way.

5
Medication Disposal - Disposal
DISPOSAL SERVICESUsing Medication Disposal Services

When youre disposing of medication its always best to enlist the help of a medication disposal service. You have a couple of avenues you can explore when choosing to dispose of your unused medicine in this way, so take a look and think about which would be the best choice for your needs.

Medication Disposal - Drug takeback

Use A Drug Take-Back Service

Using a drug take-back service is one of the safest ways you can dispose of your unused medication. You'll also be given the utmost peace of mind that it won't cause any unintended harm to other people of the environment.

There are two different options available to you when using a drug take-back service. The first of these is to use a permanent collection site. These sites are authorized with the U.S DEA and offer you a safe and secure place to drop-off and dispose of any unused medication.

 

They aren't just drop-off points either, and some sites also offer options such as mail- back programs and home disposal, which are ideal for people that might have trouble reaching a drop-off location.

The second option that a drug take-back service can offer you is a periodic event. These are also known as ‘Drug Take-Back Days' and are essentially temporary collection sites where you can take any unused or expired medication and dispose of it safely.

 

DEPARTMENT STORES & CHAINS

There are also some department stores and chains that offer drug take-back services. These are usually permanent fixtures and are ideal for anybody that needs to dispose of any unused medication quickly and safely.

Secure disposal boxes allow you to simply post your medication into the slot and walk away. It really couldn't be easier. Most medications are accepted as well, although it's always worth checking beforehand.

Medication Disposal - Dept. Store

Here's a quick guide as to what is and isnt accepted in these
disposal boxes:

Medication Disposal - CheckAccepted
  • Prescription Medications
  • Over-the-Counter Medications
  • Pet Medications
  • Aerosols
  • Inhalers
Medication Disposal - XNot Accepted
  • Needles
  • Thermometers
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Illegal Drugs

Whichever method of disposable you go for, remember to make sure you've removed all personal information from the packaging before you drop it off.

Medication Disposal - Sharps Desktop
SHARPSIt goes without saying that when you are disposing of any used needles you should always use a medication disposal service.

If you have medication that is administered through the use of a needle, youll need to get a sharps box. Most pharmacies offer these services and will even collect the boxes for you when theyre full.

The term sharps doesnt only apply to needles though, and any syringes, lancets, or auto-injectors will also need to be disposed of using a sharps box and collected by a pharmacy or medical waste disposal company.

Medication Disposal - Inhaler
INHALERSDrug Take-Back Programs And Drop-Off Boxes Accept Inhalers

If punctured or incinerated, inhalers can be really dangerous so its never advisable to dispose of them in your household waste. A lot of drug take-back programs and drop- off boxes accept inhalers, and they should always be disposed of in this way.

If punctured or incinerated, inhalers can be really dangerous so its never advisable to dispose of them in your household waste. A lot of drug take-back programs and drop- off boxes accept inhalers, and they should always be disposed of in this way.

If youre unable to get to a drop-off point, contact your pharmacy as they may have an inhaler-recycling program in operation. This doesnt only give you the opportunity to get rid of your used inhaler safely, but also allows you to minimize the impact disposing of it would have on the environment.

Medication Disposal - Burning
BURNINGDrug Take-Back Programs And Drop-Off Boxes Accept Inhalers

A lot of medication that is professionally disposed of is incinerated, This is done in a controlled environment using special equipment that minimizes the environmental impact. However, burning medicine at home will release toxins into the air that can severely impact the surrounding environment.

For this reason, under no circumstances should you ever attempt to burn any unused medication yourself. Dispose of it in your household waste by following the steps outlined above or by using a drug take-back service.

Medication Disposal - Flushing
FLUSHINGThere Are Some Medicines That Can Only Be Disposed Of By Flushing Them Down The Toilet.

Finally, place the mixed-up medication in your household waste. To keep it even further away from any potential accidents, its a good idea to sink it as deeply as possible into your bin. The layer of waste on top will then keep it better concealed and, as more trash is added to the top, it will sink further down into the bin.

Planting it deeply into your household waste also reduces the risk of it spilling out if your trash can is accidentally knocked over. And, if this does happen, the sealed container youve used will keep it well concealed and out of harms way.

Medication Disposal - Organization
ORGANIZATIONA Really Good Way To Prevent A Lot Of Medication From Building Up And Expiring Is To Keep It Organized.

When youre disposing of medication its always best to enlist the help of a medication disposal service. You have a couple of avenues you can explore when choosing to dispose of your unused medicine in this way, so take a look and think about which would be the best choice for your needs.

Medication Disposal - Phone

Identifying Unknown Medication

Of course, identifying medication that has been lurking in the back of your cabinets for a long time can be tricky. You might not be able to remember what it was prescribed for. Or the label may have faded so much that you can't see what it is.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help you out in this situation. The first thing to pay attention to is the shape of the pill. There is a law in place that states every pill or capsule approved by the FDA must be unique. The reason for this is to help make identifying unknown medication much easier. These unique designs mean that each pill or capsule differs in:

  • Shape
  • Pattern (speckled, lined, etc.)
  • Color

Each type of pill or capsule will also be marked with a unique identifier. This could be numbers, letters, or a combination of both. Oftentimes the pill will have the name of the medication written on it too, which makes identification a lot easier.

Once you've collected as much information from the pill as possible, head online and log on to a pill identification tool. This will let you type in everything you know about the pill and, once submitted, will tell you what it is and what it's used for.

If you're still having trouble identifying the pill, you can call your pharmacy or doctor and find out what you were prescribed and when. Under no circumstances should you risk holding onto it or taking it if you don't know what it is. Instead, dispose of it appropriately. This will keep both yourself and your family safe.

Conclusion

A Safer Society Through Proper Medication Disposal

From keeping the water we drink at home clean to ensuring the food we eat is kept free of any potentially harmful chemicals, disposing of unused medication in a safe, appropriate way doesn't just have an impact on the safety of our own household but plays a large role in creating a safer society for everyone.

Whether you choose to use a drug take-back service or an in-store drop-off point, using a medication disposal service is always the best thing to do to keep the environment and those that live in it as safe as possible.

However, if that's not possible, make sure you carry out the extra steps outlined above if you have no other option than to dispose of your medication at home.

Disposing of your unused medication incorrectly can cause health problems for humans and animals alike, as well as potentially destroy entire ecosystems. So, the next time you find some old pills or capsules in the back of your cabinets, make sure you get rid of them the right way.

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