Capitol Connection: The Right Way to Dispose of Pharmaceutical Drugs

January 29, 2014

How do you get rid of old, expired or unused medications? You might throw them in the trash or flush them down the toilet; but do you know how you are supposed to dispose of them lawfully?

This question has no official answer. Currently, there are no local, state or federal policies that prevent improper residential disposal of pharmaceutical drugs. However, improper disposal is a real problem, and there is a right way and a wrong way to get rid of old medication.

You should not throw pills away in the trash because that does not destroy the medication, leaving a risk that they could end up in the wrong hands. You also should not flush medications, because research shows that can harm the environment.

According to Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), a non-profit advocacy organization, flushing unused pills or pouring unused liquid medication down the drain could contaminate our rivers, estuaries and groundwater.

A nationwide study conducted in 1999 and 2000 by United States Geological Survey (USGS) found low levels of drugs such as antibiotics, hormones, contraceptives and steroids in 80 percent of the rivers and streams tested – and that number could be much higher today. Since sewage treatment plants, water cleaning infrastructure and septic systems were not designed to remove pharmaceutical drug residue, there is even a chance that trace amounts of pharmaceutical drugs can end up in our drinking water.

What has Connecticut done to address this public health and environmental issue?

Just last year Connecticut was close to passing legislation that would have prohibited healthcare institutions from discarding medication by flushing it into wastewater systems or septic systems. The legislation was intended to apply to all healthcare institutions except hospitals, which already have their own established methods for proper disposal. The bill, however, died on the House calendar awaiting action last year.

This year, we may see renewed interest in reconsidering the proposed legislation to establish rules in the healthcare industry.

We also may see more towns setting up their own pharmaceutical drug drop boxes in municipal police departments. These drop boxes, already available in some police stations including Canton and Simsbury, provide an accessible, safe and secure way for the public to dispose of old or unused medication, and ensure that the medication never falls into the wrong hands. Once collected, police departments send the drugs to disposal facilities that use appropriate destruction methods.

While there is no legislation in place currently, we should all consider the implications of improper disposal. Please take advantage of the drug drop boxes now available in local municipalities and get rid of unused and expired medications the right way. To find out if your town has a drug drop box, contact your local police department.

Removing unneeded pharmaceutical drugs from our homes, and keeping them out of our environment, is an important step to promote continuous health and safety in our communities.