How to Dispose of Unused or Expired Medications
Is your medicine cabinet filled with expired drugs or medications you no longer use? How should you dispose of them?
Most drugs can be thrown in the household trash, but consumers should take certain precautions before tossing them out, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A few drugs should be flushed down the toilet. And a growing number of community-based “take-back” programs offer another safe disposal alternative.
FDA Guidelines for Drug Disposal
FDA worked with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop the first consumer guidance for proper disposal of prescription drugs. Issued by ONDCP in February 2007 and updated in October 2009, the federal guidelines are summarized here:
Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information that accompanies the medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
Take advantage of community drug take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service (see blue pages in phone book) to see if a take-back program is available in your community. The Drug Enforcement Administration, working with state and local law enforcement agencies, is sponsoring National Prescription Drug Take Back Days throughout the United States.
If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first:
- Take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will be less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
- Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
- Before throwing out a medicine container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.
- Do not give medications to friends. Doctors prescribe drugs based on a person’s specific symptoms and medical history. A drug that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.
When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.
The same disposal methods for prescription drugs also apply to over-the-counter drugs as well.
Why the Precautions About Proper Drug Disposal?
Disposal instructions on the label are part of FDA’s “risk mitigation” strategy, says Capt. Jim Hunter, R.Ph., M.P.H., senior program manager on FDA’s Controlled Substance Staff. When a drug contains instructions to flush it down the toilet, he says, it’s because FDA, working with the manufacturer, has determined this method to be the most appropriate route of disposal that presents the least risk to safety.
Drugs such as powerful narcotic pain relievers and other controlled substances carry instructions for flushing to reduce the danger of unintentional use or overdose and illegal abuse.
For example, the fentanyl patch, an adhesive patch that delivers a potent pain medicine through the skin, comes with instructions to flush used or leftover patches. Too much fentanyl can cause severe breathing problems and lead to death in babies, children, pets, and even adults, especially those who have not been prescribed the drug. “Even after a patch is used, a lot of the drug remains in the patch,” says Hunter, “so you wouldn’t want to throw something in the trash that contains a powerful and potentially dangerous narcotic that could harm others.”