Doing some spring cleaning and clearing out your medicine cabinet? Stop before you flush old or unwanted prescription or over-the-counter medications down the toilet or drain. These pharmaceuticals 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.
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. More Americans abuse prescription drugs than those using cocaine, hallucinogens, and heroin combined, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Medications are also as reported by the Poison Control Center.
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.
Disposing of medications at home
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.
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: Medicine & Prescription Drugs for details.
What the MPCA is doing to help
Prompted by concerns about the effect of medications in our waters, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
- has advised permitted wastewater-treatment plants across the state to not accept certain pharmaceuticals for disposal.
- developed a medication disposal toolkit for counties: Medication disposal toolkit.
- is working with hospitals and associations representing generators of pharmaceuticals as well as federal, state, and local agencies to develop legal and reasonable disposal methods. Read more: Health care industry.
For more information
Visit MPCA's Managing unwanted medications webpage for additional disposal information.