How Do You Dispose of Old Medications?

Innovative technology has helped improve many aspects in our quality of life and medical advancements are no exception. Medicine plays an integral role in people’s daily life; whether taken for a one-time ailment or as a daily medication, it has truly evolved and can help maintain healthy communities. But what happens when medications need to be disposed of?

It is important that we safeguard our natural resources from unwanted materials and this includes medicine. The Federal Drug Administration advises, “When your medicines are no longer needed, they should be disposed of promptly. Consumers and caregivers should remove expired, unwanted, or unused medicines from their home as quickly as possible to help reduce the chance that others accidentally take or intentionally misuse the unneeded medicine, and to help reduce drugs from entering the environment.” Essentially, proper disposal of medication has various benefits, including keeping potentially strong medicine out of the hands of children and those who may abuse it, and to minimize any environmental impacts, including impacts on our watersheds.

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Local organizations, such as Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD), are helping customers and Riverside County residents properly dispose of unwanted medicines. “EMWD’s SewerSmart Healthy Sewers campaign educates on proper medication disposal in order to reduce the impacts of unwanted medications in local wastewater. Toilets are not trashcans,” shares Roxanne Rountree, Senior Public Affairs Officer at EMWD. “We provide free medication disposal bags. Simply place the medications in the bags, add water and throw away in a trashcan. Historically, the District has promoted disposing medications by mixing it with undesirable substances, such as kitty litter or coffee grounds, and discarding it in the household trash. This option provides convenient onsite disposal that ultimately ends up in a lined landfill. However, some consumers prefer off-site disposal, citing environmental concerns and the possibility of disposed medications ending up in the wrong hands,”

EMWD, like many of SAWPA’s partners regard what they call highly reliable water, recycled water and wastewater service as their top priority and do so by protecting the health and safety of the community and the environment, as well as meet all regulatory requirements.

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How much of a concern is it when medicine enters the environment and what kind of impact does it have on our watershed?
This is a multifaceted answer that has been the central topic in many discussions and studies throughout the years. The World Health Organization released a technical report that states, “Pharmaceuticals are normally governed by stringent regulatory processes and require rigorous preclinical and clinical studies to assess their efficacy and safety before commercialization. Therefore, pharmaceuticals are generally better characterized than other environmental contaminants.” However, the Santa Ana River Watershed still relies heavily on its local communities and partners to engage in safe disposal of unwanted medications, trash, and other forms of debris to maintain the vitality of the habitat and the integrity of the resource.

Some of the pharmaceutical contaminants in our environment do not come directly from the actual medication being disposed of in our waterways or down our toilets and sinks. In fact, the World Health Organization established “that raw sewage and wastewater effluents are a…source of pharmaceuticals found in surface waters,” and, the Federal Drug Administration reinforces the notion that the “majority of medicines found in water are a result of the body’s natural routes of drug elimination (in urine or feces).” The pharmaceutical contaminants make their way into our water supply via our natural sewer and water cycle. Nevertheless, almost every individual person can have a direct and positive impact on the watershed by following proper pharmaceutical disposal of medication they no longer need. The individual and community level preventative actions that people take help sustain a healthy and reliable source of water. They also support the habitation and give people ease of mind when participating in recreational activities along watershed.

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How do we know that our tap water quality still maintains its integrity? The World Health Organization goes on to explain, “Even though wastewater and drinking-water treatment processes are not designed specifically to remove pharmaceuticals, they may do so to varying degrees. Pharmaceuticals are not “unusual” chemicals; their removal efficiencies during wastewater and drinking-water treatment are dependent on their physical and chemical properties. In cases where regulations require controls to mitigate risks from exposure to pesticides, treatment barriers may already be optimized to remove pharmaceuticals. Conventional wastewater treatment facilities generally have activated sludge processes or other forms of biological treatment such as biofiltration. These processes have demonstrated varying removal rates for pharmaceuticals, ranging from less than 20% to greater than 90%.”

The FDA released a statement saying that “To date, scientists have found no evidence of harmful effects to human health from medicines in the environment. In addition, to better understand the human health and ecological risks from medicines in our water, the FDA works with other agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).” Governing agencies are constantly searching for improvements in treatment processes to uphold water quality standards and protect our watersheds. To reduce overall medicine levels in our waters, FDA recommends that if readily available, consumers first consider disposing of these drugs as quickly as possible through programs. Available options include:

  • Using disposal events at your local pharmacy to return unused medication
  • Disposing of medicines in household trash in the following steps
    • Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds;
    • Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag;
    • Throw the container in your household trash; and
  • By being cognizant of what we are disposing of in our waterways

EMWD has partnered with other public agencies to provide a myriad of options, including local events, to dispose of pharmaceutical medication including:

We shouldn’t contaminate our waters by pouring fat, grease, or oil down our pipes. Adopting the same mentality when it comes to pharmaceuticals can only help maintain the liveliness of our water supply and watershed, and promote overall public health.