A Safe Way to Dispose of Medicines

Temia Chambliss

When Syreeta Mitchell or one of her children feels sick, she walks to the kitchen, opens a wooden cabinet door and probes the shelves for medication.

The 29-year-old Wyoming, Mich., resident keeps her medicines in a small cabinet between the stove and the refrigerator. On the top shelf, Mitchell keeps her seasonings. On the next shelf, medicines ranging from Vicks VapoRub to Robitussin, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen and Alka-Seltzer. And on the bottom shelf, dry foods.

“When I do dispose of medicines, if it is a liquid I pour it down the sink but pills I toss in the trash” Mitchell said.

Many people, like Mitchell, are unaware of how to properly dispose of their over-the-counter or prescription medications, said Laura Strehlow, a Pharmacist at Borgess Hospital.

When these prescription or over-the-counter drugs are thrown into the garbage, or flushed down the sink or toilet, their chemical components may be added to the water supply or soil. Although the concentration level of these products in the environment is very low, it may be high enough to cause adverse effects in the environment and to human health.

“People ask regularly about disposal,” said Strehlow. “Many people have even tried to return their medications to the pharmacy, but it is against the Federal law to hand anyone a controlled substance.”

A controlled substance is medication that could be abused such as anti-depressants, painkillers and sleeping pills. For controlled substances, only a deputized law enforcement officer may accept medications from the public.

At Borgess Hospital, pharmacists encourage consumers to follow a step-by-step practice when disposing of medications. First, consumers are to take unused, unneeded or expired prescriptions and over-the-counters out of their original containers. Next, they should crush or dissolve pills and dilute medications. Then they mix them with an undesirable substance like used coffee grounds or kitty litter. After that, they should put the mixture in an impermeable, non-descript container, such as an empty can or sealable bag to ensure the drug isn’t accidentally ingested by children or pets. Lastly, they should throw the container into the trash.

While many people may think that the best way to dispose of their medications is by flushing the unused or expired medications down the toilet, it is strongly suggested that they do not flush.

Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove medications, said Tom Dewhirst, facility manager for the Kalamazoo County Household Hazardous Waste Center.

“Flushed medications are passing through the treatment plants and being discharged into the local surface water and ground water,” Dewhirst said.

The long-term effects of flushing medicines remain unknown at this time.

In the past people were encouraged to flush medicines down the toilet because it was quick, easy and it lessened the risk of being ingested my and animal or child.

“I have always flushed my old medicines down the toilet or thrown them into the trash,” said Keisha Patterson, a 23-year-old Grand Rapids resident.

Patterson said she has never been told how to properly dispose of medicines.

“This is just what I’ve always done,” Patterson said.

New studies have shown that the increasing amount of medicines flushed down the toilet is causing problems for the environment. Improperly disposed medications are being found in the soil and in bodies of water.

In an effort to help residents dispose of their products, the Kalamazoo County Household Hazardous Waste Center initiated several medication collections. The four collections took place in 2008 and 2009 at the Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo. At these collections, residents could dispose of prescription medication, such as antibiotics, birth control and insulin; medication samples; over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and cold medicine; veterinary medications; and personal care products, such as medicated ointments, lotions and shampoos. The only items that were not accepted were medical waste products including sharps and syringes or any mercury-containing products.

“This collection effort was very labor intensive. After separating the controlled substances from the other non-controlled substances, the pharmacist would log the name of the medication, the prescription strength and the number of pills remaining in the container,” said Dewhirst.

The medicines collected at these events were destroyed by high-temperate incineration.

“Incineration is the most environmentally safe way to get rid of medications,” said Dewhirst. “Nothing is left but carbon, water and a little bit of ash.”

These collection events were sponsored by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant.

Funding for these collections has expired. The main concern, Dewhirst said, is where do we go from here. Future initiatives are going to be a community-wide effort.

“I don’t want to stop what we’ve started,” Dewhirst said. “In January the Kalamazoo County Household Hazardous Waste Center wants to partner with hospitals, pharmacists and law enforcement to find a working solution for 2010.”