Medication Disposal - What to Do with Old or Unusable Medication

Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FAAEm, FACEP
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

There are many axioms that remind us about how unfair life can be. It always rains after you wash the car. The car noise disappears the moment you drive into the mechanic's bay. Your doctor always changes your prescription the day after you had it refilled.

When you look into your medicine cabinet, you see your medical history. The leftover pain medication from knee surgery, the few antibiotic pills you forgot to finish once you felt better, the cholesterol lowering medication that caused liver inflammation. Small bottles half-filled with potent medicine and elixirs no good to anybody - but what to do with them? Like nuclear waste, nobody wants the leftovers back. Have you ever tried returning pills to a pharmacy after you developed a side effect or an allergic reaction to the medication? What are you supposed to do with the 53 pills left in the bottle?

Most people toss them in the garbage or flush them down the toilet; but there is a problem with disposing of medication this way. These medicinal compounds filter into the groundwater and end up in our lakes and streams. The US Geological Survey studied water from 139 streams in 30 states and found that 80% contained traces of pharmaceuticals. The affect that those traces of pharmaceuticals may have on the environment, plants, and marine life is unknown. This unknown has created a research opportunity, which has been seized by scientists at the Great Lakes Water Institute. Studies are ongoing to determine the effects of fluoxetine (Prozac) and other anti-depressants on fish development. Other work is focused on the effects of atorvastatin (Lipitor)  a cholesterol lowering drug, on fish reproduction.