Disposing of Pharmaceuticals

Cough, cough, cough.  It’s that time of the year again: cold and flu season.  It means that I’ve already spent a few days at home to avoid spreading too many germs to my colleagues.  It also means that I’ve been walking the aisles of the drug store, trying to decide which medicine is going to tackle my newest symptoms.  And that means that I have a small but growing stockpile of expired drugs in my house. 

What do I do with my expired medicine? 

It’s a good question, because there are environmental and human health consequences to what is done.  Here in the U.S., we have a “toilet to tap” system.  The things that we flush down the toilet and sink get treated at a wastewater plant, which then puts the treated water into the rivers and streams that we use to get our drinking water.  Since we have no regulations requiring wastewater treatment plants to treat for pharmaceuticals, this means that flushing drugs down the toilet or washing them down the sink is a sure way to make sure they end up in our drinking water.

But then again, throwing them in the trash isn’t an answer either.  As it turns out, researchers have also found pharmaceuticals leaching from landfills, so throwing the into the trash doesn’t help either. 

That’s why we decided to look into the issue of pharmaceuticals a little more – especially how they are ending up in our drinking water.  We finished an extensive report looking at the whole picture to try to determine what needs to be done.  The answer is: A LOT.  There are things that can be done at every step of the process – from designing better drugs to better manufacturing practices to how doctors prescribe drugs to how we dispose of them.  Our report goes through all of that, and much more.

But back to the main question for the general public, what do I do with my expired drugs?

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer.  Some communities are lucky enough to have “take back” programs which will accept and properly dispose of their medicines.  Some have mail back programs (like Maine) or drop off boxes at pharmacies (like Washington State) or one-day events (like in California).  (We listed some others in our report, too.)  But here in D.C., we aren’t that lucky yet.  There is some legislation in the works, but until then, I am left hoarding these pills until I either travel somewhere that has a take back program, or D.C. creates one.  It’s not a big deal for us right now because we don’t have that much, but I better stay healthy if we don’t want my pile to grow anymore.