Disposing of unwanted medications
Medicines flushed down the drain can pollute our water and unintentionally expose us to the chemicals in these medications.
Recent studies have found that medicines flushed down the drain can contaminate our lakes and streams, which can hurt fish and other aquatic wildlife, and end up in our drinking water. Some medications, such as hormones and antidepressants, include endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), which interfere with the reproduction and normal growth of many aquatic species, such as frogs and fish.
When medications are flushed down a toilet or drain, they enter the wastewater treatment system, which cleans up the water. Unfortunately, many of these treatments systems are not designed to remove medications.
Prevent abuse and misuse
In addition to the environmental impacts, prescription drugs in home cabinets are a significant cause of accidental poisoning. These drugs are also highly susceptible to misuse and abuse. Studies show that people who abuse prescription drugs often obtained them from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet.
Instead of flushing unwanted medicines, you can throw them in the trash—but first, take steps to prevent children, animals, and others from coming into contact with them.
Take it to the box
A number of counties hold regularly scheduled drug-take back events, and many police and sheriff facilities have permanent drop boxes. These programs typically accept all medicines from households, including prescription, over-the-counter, and pet medicines.
Contact your county sheriff’s office or city police office to find out if there is a permanent collection site near you. (Because of concerns of drug abuse and that some medications are highly regulated controlled substances, drug take-back programs are managed through law enforcement agencies.) Or call your city or county to see what options are available in your community.
Twin Cities residents can visit Rethink Recycling for details.
Disposing of medications at home
Don’t flush old or unwanted prescription or over-the-counter medications down the toilet or drain. Follow these precautions to prevent accidental or intentional ingestion.
- Keep the medication in its original container. The labels may contain safety information and the caps are typically childproof. Leaving the content information clearly visible, cover the patient's name with permanent maker.
- Modify the contents to discourage anyone from taking the medication. For pills or capsules, add a small amount of vinegar to at least partially dissolve them. Add table salt, flour, or a powdered spice such as mustard to liquids.
- Seal and conceal the medication container. Tape the lid shut with duct tape and place the container inside a non-transparent piece of trash, such as an empty margarine tub. For blister packs, wrap packages containing pills in opaque tape like duct tape.
- Throw the container in the garbage.
Incineration is the preferred method for destruction of household pharmaceuticals. If you know your garbage goes to an incinerator, you can safely dispose of your medications using these instructions. If your garbage goes to a landfill and you would prefer not to wait until a collection option is available, it is still better to follow these instructions than to flush any medications.
Other pharmaceutical waste
- Unused ampoules, vials, and IV bags should not be opened. Wrap the container with tape to minimize breakage, then place in an opaque plastic container (such as an empty yogurt or margarine tub). Wrap the outside of the container or bag with additional duct or shipping tape to prevent leakage and further obscure the contents. Dispose of the container in the trash.
- Chemotherapy drugs may require special handling. Work with your healthcare provider on proper disposal for this type of medication.
- Mercury-containing devices: Mercury is a neurological toxin and should be handled carefully. Take mercury-containing products to your local household hazardous waste collection facility. Pharmaceutical collection sites do not collect any mercury-containing devices
- Needles and syringes: Never place containers with used needles or syringes in a recycling bin or loose sharps in the garbage. Find out how to dispose of needles and syringes safely.
What's in our water?
The chemicals, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products, are of concern because many have properties that can interfere with the functioning of hormones in animals and people.
Pharmaceuticals and Endocrine Active Chemicals in Minnesota Lakes
Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Minnesota’s Rivers and Streams - 2010
Wastewater Treatment Plant Endocrine Disrupting Chemical Monitoring Study
Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (U.S. EPA)