Dakota Travel Nurse Home Care

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Safe Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know

Pills trashDTN Home Care nurses have expressed their concerns about seniors who have expired prescription medications in their cupboards. Recently, I read a thread on Facebook where someone had posted the question, “How do I dispose of my deceased loved one’s medications?” I strongly believe that the safest and most environmentally friendly way to dispose of expired or not-to-be-used-again medications is through drug Take Back or Take Away programs sponsored by local government agencies. However, the availability of these programs may vary depending on the drug and the state you live in.

Fortunately, for those of you who live in ND, The North Dakota Pharmacists Association sponsors an environmentally friendly drug disposal program that allows you to safely and conveniently dispose of unwanted or unused medications in secure locations and in a way that prevents water contamination. Their website explains the Drug Take Back Program sponsored by the ND Attorney General and the TakeAway: Environmental Return System, ND’s Medication Disposal Program. You can find a list of ND Take Back Sites here: http://www.ag.nd.gov/PDrugs/TakeBackProgram.htm.

Other Medicine Take-Back Programs

No one disagrees that medicine take-back programs are the best way to remove expired, unwanted, or unused medicines from the home and reduce the chance that others may accidentally take the medicine. Wherever you live, you can:

  • Contact your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service to see if there is a medicine take-back program in your community and learn about any special rules regarding which medicines can be taken back.
  • You can also talk to your pharmacist to see if he or she knows of other medicine disposal programs in your area.
  • Or visit the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s website for information on National Prescription Drug Take-Back Events. 

What if…?

What if there is no medicine take back program in your area, or if you are worried about what might happen to the drugs if Take Back cannot be done quickly? The FDA suggests two quick disposal methods that they say are safe. One is a method of disposing of medicines in household trash and the other is flushing or pouring down the sink a list of medicines on an approved list.

At DTN Home Care, we strongly support the idea that trashing or flushing should be an absolute last resort for disposal. See the links at the bottom of the page to start your own environmental research. If you are going to use one of these two disposal methods, please do it as safely as possible by following these FDA guidelines:

Disposal in Household Trash

Consumers are advised to check their local laws and ordinances to make sure medicines can legally be disposed of with their household trash by following these instructions:

  • Mix medicines (do NOT crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds;
  • Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag; and
  • Throw the container in your household trash.
  • Before throwing out your empty pill bottle or other empty medicine packaging, remember to scratch out all information on the prescription label to make it unreadable.

Flushing of Certain Medicines 

Based on the available data, FDA believes the known risk of harm to humans from accidental exposure to these medicines far outweighs any potential risk to humans or the environment from flushing them.  

A small number of medicines may be especially harmful and, in some cases, fatal with just one dose if they are used by someone other than the person for whom the medicine was prescribed. To prevent accidental ingestion by children, pets, or anyone else, a few medicines have specific disposal instructions indicating they should be flushed down the sink or toilet as soon as they are no longer needed, and when they cannot be disposed of through a medicine take-back program. Click here for a list of medicines recommended for disposal by flushing. Questions? Call 1.888.INFO-FDA (1-888-6332).

Disposal Directions on the Prescription

You may have also received disposal directions for some medicines when you picked up your prescription. If your medicine is on this list, and you did not receive information containing disposal instructions along with your dispensed prescription, you can find instructions on how to dispose of the medicines at DailyMed, by searching on the drug name and then looking in one of the following sections of the prescribing information:

  • Information for Patients and Caregivers
  • Patient Information
  • Patient Counseling Information
  • Safety and Handling Instructions
  • Medication Guide

Additional Tips from Ilisa Bernstein, Pharm.D., J.D., FDA’s Deputy Director of the Office of Compliance:

  • Before throwing out a medicine container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.
  • Do not give your medicine to friends. Doctors prescribe medicines based on a person’s specific symptoms and medical history. A medicine that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.
  • When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.

Additional Information on Safe Medicine Disposal and the Environment

The above information should not be considered legal advice.



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