Have you ever been cleaning out your bathroom or kitchen cupboard and come across some old prescription medications that you no longer need – perhaps past their expiration date, or for a medical condition you no longer have, or maybe it’s a prescription that you didn’t finish because it didn’t work for your medical condition or gave you bad side effects.
So what do you do with these prescriptions? Well, definitely don’t flush them! Remember that toilets are not trash cans, and you should only flush the 3 Ps: pee, poop, and toilet paper. Flushing unused prescriptions may increase the amount of pharmaceuticals released into our lakes, streams, and oceans. But throwing unused prescriptions in a trash can presents a risk that a child or pet could come across them and accidentally ingest them, or when the trash is taken to a landfill, the drugs can dissolve into the landfill leachate, which may be taken to a wastewater treatment plant anyway.
Fortunately, a good option exists: the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) holds two National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days each year, and the next one is this Saturday, September 27, from 10 am to 2:00 pm. Visit the DEA’s website to locate a collection site near you. The DEA has collected and properly disposed of 3.4 million pounds of medications through these take-back events since 2010 – considering how small most pills are, that is a huge amount of drugs!
Having these collection days twice a year is great, but it can be difficult to fit dropping of unused prescriptions into your weekend plans. It’s also not great to keep unused prescriptions around the house for months. According to Michelle Daugherty of the DEA, who gave a presentation on prescription drug disposal at NACWA’s 2014 Winter Conference, 6.1 million people use prescription drugs non-medically each month, and 70% of these users age 12 and older obtained the drugs from a friend or relative. Deaths of opioid pain relievers kill more people in every age group than all illegal drugs combined.
The good news is that earlier this month, the DEA finalized a rule that will expand the options available for returning unused controlled substances, including take-back events, mail-back programs, and collection receptacles. Before this rule, take-back programs that were operated by clean water agencies and pharmacies were limited in their scope because they could not accept controlled substances. Retail pharmacies, drug manufacturers, and some other entities may now voluntarily administer and maintain mail-back programs and collection receptacles that allow for disposal of controlled substances along with other prescriptions.
The bad news is that there is currently no funding provided by either the government or the pharmaceutical companies for these programs. Pharmacies may voluntarily establish take-back programs at their own expense, but they are under no obligation to do so. As part of its Toilets Are Not Trash Cans! campaign, NACWA has supported proposed state legislation in California that would require that producers of pharmaceuticals create, finance, and manage take-back programs. NACWA will continue to support local, state, and national efforts to get pharmaceutical companies to use the product stewardship model and pay for the proper disposal of their products, and we would like to hear if your local government is considering legislation that would mandate unused prescription take-back programs of any kind.