Recently, in our ongoing attempt to bring some order to our lives, Margaret and I discovered a cornucopia of expired and unwanted medicines in our bathroom closet. Even I, who am uncontrollably attracted to bright candy, had no difficulty concluding that these pills should be jettisoned.
My first impulse was to flush them all down the toilet. I found an AP report that said that many hospitals simply flush their unused or unwanted medications down the drain. The report mentioned that this might not be a good idea, so I decided to check in with the EPA.
When it comes to disposing of medications, the EPA’s website refers you to the “first consumer guidance for the proper disposal of prescription drugs” issued by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; however, at the date of this publication, the link does not connect to the guide.
As further guidance the EPA says that RCRA doesn’t regulate what can be put in your household garbage can, but that you should give them to a take-back program at a pharmacy. If there isn’t a take-back program near you, the EPA refers you to your state.
Margaret and I went to a nearby pharmacy. The person behind the counter said that they used to have a take-back program, a long time ago, but currently they did not accept medications. She recommended that we “google the police.”
In typical drug-crazy-US-fashion, the FDA recommends that if you can’t find a take-back program, you should put unwanted medication in the trash after mixing them with kitty litter or something similarly disgusting…or flush them if they are on this list. The FDA makes a point of quoting a scientist who says, “there has been no indication of environmental effects due to flushing.”
Why might the FDA need a scientist? In 2000, the USGS sampled the water in 139 streams in 30 different states around the US. The samples were found to contain measurable levels of prescription and nonprescription drugs, natural and synthetic hormones, antimicrobial disinfectants, and many other synthesized chemicals. The WHO report on pharmaceuticals in water suggests that their presence is widespread.
“The stuff was just about everywhere,” according to Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, “In rural and urban areas, in wells, surface water, and groundwater. Drugs were leaking from septic tanks (every time we pop a pill, its metabolites show up in our excreta), flowing off animal feedlots, and pouring into rivers from wastewater treatment plants.”
Notice Royte’s last two items: feedlots and wastewater treatment plants; a portion of the pills we swallow pass through us into our waste. And the same goes for animals: According to Andrew Szasz in Shopping Our Way to Safety, “Annually, about 90 percent of all the antimicriobial medicines are used to ‘treat’ healthy farm animals.” Wastewater treatment facilities do not filter out leftovers from our medications, nor are they obligated to by regulations.
So what’s your best option? A Washington State take-back program says that the meds collected through take-back programs are incinerated. I guess this is about the best option there is. When I did get around to googling the police, I discovered that there is a permanent medication disposal box in the central police station in town. Most police departments operate similar programs. If you need to dispose of medications, talk to the cops.