What Do You Do with Expired Medications? | Drug Disposal Programs are the Safest Route

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in 2007 pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Merck, and Eli Lilly distributed 173 million drug samples. Where do all those free blister packs of caplets and tiny tubes of ointments end up? Probably 10 per cent are languishing in family medicine cabinets. Okay, I confess: that number’s just my guesstimate. The other statistics in this paragraph aren’t, though. They appear in documents that the U.S. Congress required drug companies to submit. In one year the big three drug companies plus the smaller ones handed out a grand total of 241 million drug samples.

Setting aside the ethical questions drug sampling programs entail, let’s focus on their practical effect. Take a scavenger hunt through your home. Search medicine cabinets, nightstand drawers, and kitchen cupboards. Look for expired drug samples, ancient over-the-counter remedies, and outdated prescription medications.

After reading the Wall Street Journal article, I searched my own house. A few months earlier, during an intense burst of de-cluttering, I’d filled two brown paper lunch sacks with outdated medications, including aspirin bottles with expiration dates ranging from 2003 to 1999. During this second search I didn’t expect to find more medications. I did, though. A couple tubes of prescription skin cream had eluded me earlier by hiding in a bedside bureau drawer. The big, squashed tube expired in 2007. The tiny, unopened sample—expiration date May 2009—was for some ailment I couldn’t recall.

Why had I hoarded this stuff? Keeping old medicines around endangers children and pets, confuses adults, and creates useless pockets of clutter. But drugs flushed down the toilet, poured down the drain, or tossed in the garbage end up in waterways or landfills. I simply didn’t know the environmentally sound way to dispose of outdated medications.

Lucky for me, a new option arose in my area this year. Fairfield’s Hy-Vee Drug Store recently accepted responsibility for safely disposing of unused medications.  (Kudos, Hy-Vee!) A few months back, a flyer tucked inside my water bill touted Hy-Vee’s new drug disposal program. The flyer explained that in Fairfield unused prescriptions flushed down the toilet go to the wastewater treatment plant. Some of these medicines end up in heated anaerobic digesters that produce an anaerobic sludge that’s applied to farm fields. This sludge enriches the soil with nutrients and humus. While, according to the flyer, scientists think heat or sunlight may break down the pharmaceuticals in the sludge, eating food produced on fields peppered with people’s old medications is an unappetizing prospect. 

Researchers in Iowa’s universities are currently studying what happens to pharmaceuticals in wastewater treatment plants. Do biological processes render them harmless? Scientists haven’t yet definitively answered that question. Until they do, we can take certain steps to protect ourselves and our environment.

Ask your healthcare providers to give you green prescriptions. Green prescriptions emphasize exercise and lifestyle goals. They may not obviate the need to take medications, but in many cases they reduce patients’ reliance on drugs. Healthcare providers in Jefferson County recently began issuing green prescriptions to interested patients.

Ask local pharmacies if they provide safe drug disposal options. If they do, take advantage of these programs and immediately purge unused medications from your home. Tell your friends to do this, too. Then thank the people running the program. If no pharmacy in your area provides such a program, contact company and government officials about instituting safe drug disposal practices. You can also ask your local trash and recycling center about its hazardous waste policies.

Conduct an online search for organizations that donate unused medications to third-world countries. Laws governing donations within the U.S. vary from state to state. In most states organizations sometimes can but individuals usually can’t legally donate unused medications.

Finally, familiarize yourself with both sides of the debate over drug sampling programs: do they help people because they provide access to free medications and an opportunity to try out new drugs? Or do they hurt people because they encourage the use of brand-name drugs in lieu of generic versions? Let government officials know your views.

Today, thanks to the people responsible for setting up Fairfield Hy-Vee Drug Store’s drug disposal program, my house is finally free of old medications. Adieu, ancient aspirins and squashed tubes of skin cream!

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