Unsafe Disposal of Medications Affects You, Me, and Our Environment

Throughout my oncology career I have felt a bit unsettled knowing the multitude of medications our patients receive. Many of these medications may go unused for several reasons – either the medication stopped working or was no longer tolerated or needed, the treatment regimen was changed, or symptoms were abated. Under most circumstances, unused medication cannot be returned to a local pharmacy – a two-fold issue, as we are responsible for keeping them from getting into the wrong hands and disposing of them in an environmentally sound manner.

Because most individuals are not aware of how to properly dispose of medications, – billions are  flushed down toilets, drains, and dumped into landfills. Improperly disposing of pharmaceuticals is worrisome, because by default they are designed to alter normal biological processes. Epidemiologists, endocrinologists, and other scientists do not yet understand the full effects of the collective exposure of these medications on humans, and to top that, the sheer volume of medications – including over-the-counter herbs, vitamins, and minerals – continues to be increasingly consumed and excreted by Americans every day.

It is most concerning that research shows evidence of antibiotics in our sewage, which is contributing to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Other common medications found in our sewage are anti-depressants, hormone medications, birth control pills, and other endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that can mimic hormones and interfere with the hormone system in mammals. Some of these can contribute to the growth of cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders. Because it is so costly to upgrade wastewater and sewage treatment techniques to a system that removes these chemicals, many municipalities do not have them. What we can do to minimize the effects of prescription medications is take personal responsibility to follow accepted standards for the disposal of our own unused medications now. Here’s how: 

  1. Talk to your Pharmacist. Research shows that pharmacists are some of the most accessible healthcare professionals. As medication experts, pharmacists are available to guide you on how to properly dispose of your unused medications.
  2. Never flush medications down the drain or toilet. There are several other methods to properly dispose of medications on your own. Please link to the resources below.
  3. Chemotherapy medications must be treated as bio-hazardous waste. Contact the Specialty Pharmacy that dispensed or mailed you the medication for complete instructions regarding proper disposal. You may also call the pharmacist at the clinic or hospital that prescribed the medication.

Drug Take Back programs are the safest and most environmentally friendly way to dispose of prescription medications, preventing both misuse and abuse.

In Durango, Colorado, we are fortunate to have a year-round local Drug TakeBack program, which is sponsored by the Durango Police Department. The disposal bin is located at 990 E. 2nd Ave., Durango, Colorado, with a detailed list of medications that will be accepted on Monday-Friday, 8 am-4:30 pm. Drug TakeBack programs DO NOT accept any form of chemotherapy medications.

Where do the medications go from there? Currently the most common way of rendering medications and controlled substances as unusable is through incineration, which is a process that ensures the medication does not get into the wrong hands, or end-up in our community water system.

Please remember that most of our municipal wastewater treatment plants are not designed to treat water for the removal of all prescription and over-the-counter medications and cannot remove most of the chemicals and compounds in medications that are being released directly into our waterways. It is imperative that we all do our part to dispose of medications in the recommended ways to ensure that others and our streams, lakes, and rivers stay healthy! 

Safe Storage and Disposal of Medications (Cancer.Net)
AWaRXe Safe Disposal Site Locator
FDA’s Safe Disposal of Medications – or call 888-463-6332

Toni Abbey, RN, OCN, ONN-CG
Cancer Support Community Southwest Colorado