Disposing of unwanted medications
Medicines flushed down the drain can contaminate water, which can hurt fish and other aquatic wildlife, and end up in our drinking water.
Disposing of old or unused medications will help prevent possible misuse, poisoning, or even theft. According to a national survey more than 6 million Americans age 12 and older misused prescription pain relievers for nonmedical purposes. And, 70% of those drugs came from a friend or relative. Medications are also a significant cause of accidental poisoning and death, as reported by the Poison Control Center. See prescription drug abuse for more information.
Here are a few options to help dispose of your expired or unwanted prescription or over-the-counter medications safely.
Collection sites for household pharmaceuticals
Take advantage of a community drug take-back program. 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. See Law Enforcement Guidance Document - Managing household pharmaceuticals .
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. Or call your city or county to see what options are available in your community. Twin Cities residents can visit RethinkRecycling.com for details.
Disposing of medications at home
Your unwanted medications may be disposed of in your trash. 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 consumption.
- Solid medications: add a small amount of vinegar to pills or capsules to at least partially dissolve them.
- Liquid medications: add enough table salt, flour, or nontoxic powdered spice, such as mustard to make a pungent, unsightly mixture that discourages anyone from eating it.
- Blister packs: wrap packages containing pills in opaque tape like duct tape.
- Seal and conceal. Tape the medication container lid shut with packing or duct tape and put it inside a non-transparent bag or container such as an empty yogurt or margarine tub to ensure that the contents cannot be seen. Do not conceal medicines in food products because they could be inadvertently consumed by wildlife scavengers.
- Discard the container in your garbage can—do not place in the recycling bin.
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.
Managing other types of 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 options for this type of medication.
Mercury thermometers: When you are checking through your medicine cabinet for outdated pharmaceuticals, please also be on the lookout for mercury thermometers. However, household pharmaceutical collection sites do not collect any mercury-containing devices or needles and syringes. It is very important for your family’s safety for you to take mercury thermometers to your local household hazardous waste collection sites. Please also check for cooking thermometers. Mercury cooking thermometers are especially dangerous because if they break in a pan of hot liquid the vapors are extremely toxic. Be very careful when handling thermometers. Keep them in their cases if they came with one, and remove them from the house as soon as you can.
New study of pharmaceuticals in Minnesota surface waters
- Wastewater Treatment Plant Endocrine Disrupting Chemical Monitoring Study The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency studied the effluent from 25 wastewater treatment plants to obtain a more complete picture of the types and amounts of endocrine-disrupting compounds released into the state’s surface water. Analysis of water samples detects pharmaceuticals, triclosan, nonylphenol, nonylphenol ethoxylates, octylphenol, octylphenol ethoxylates, bisphenol A, and hormones.