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Proper Disposal of Prescription Medications and Other Drugs

Last Updated on April 25, 2018 by Inspire Malibu

The average American medicine cabinet is generally a time-lapse snapshot of who suffered what and how long ago. According to a study released in JAMA Internal Medicine, 66 percent of people keep leftover, unused medications after they’ve stopped using them. Many of these unused prescription medications are addictive narcotics.

Proper Medication Disposal

While the study’s findings might not set off your personal alarm bells, leftover and unused medications, especially opioids, often wind up in the hands of others.

An estimated 165,000 people died due to overdose on prescription opioids in the last 16 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent years, that number is on the rise with 29,000 fatalities in 2014 alone.

Failing to properly dispose of prescription medications is serious, sometimes fatal business.

What Happens to Unused Prescription Medications?

The study, conducted at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, found a number of other disturbing facts that include:

  • Of the 66 percent of people who admitted to keeping unused medications instead of disposing of them, 23 percent said they shared their pills
  • Of that population – 23 percent – the majority of them shared their pills to help others manage pain, 14 percent said they would probably share medications with family in the future and 8 percent admitted they were likely to share with a friend
  • 79 percent of those surveyed in the study did not keep their medications in a location that locked, which left the drugs accessible to children who might accidentally ingest them or young adults looking to experiment

Researchers learned that, like most Americans, a large number of people in the study had never received instructions on proper storage and disposal of medications that are highly addictive.

The idea that it’s harmless to dispose of medications in the toilet or by throwing them in the trash are common misconceptions. It’s not uncommon for pets or stray animals to tear through trash bags where they might be exposed to prescription drugs. Once in landfills, they could still harm people or the environment.

Flushing them down the toilet can also be a problem because the harmful chemicals are not removed by septic systems or water treatment facilities.

Drug Take-back Programs

Returning medications to an authorized “drug take-back program” is the most environmentally effective and safest way to get rid of leftover or unused drugs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) take-back programs are put on by the agency several times a year.

Probably the easiest way to return medications, though, is to visit the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) link to take-programs that run year around in local communities across the country. A simple search in your zip code will show places where medications can be properly disposed of year round, many of them local pharmacies.

Some critics say the glut of leftover prescription opioids is directly traceable to the overprescribing that started in the late ’90s, which was driven by pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

“There is a growing awareness about overprescribing and the role it’s playing in the opioid epidemic,” Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, lead author of the John Hopkins study, told The Guardian, “but I think it takes a while for the medical community to change.”

Take the opportunity to find a medication take-back program in your area and dispose of all your unwanted, unused or leftover medications. For those currently on prescription medications, spend a little bit of time learning how best to safely store medicine to prevent it from getting in the hands of those who might misuse or abuse it.


National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day

Consequences of an Opioid Overdose

Stories of Heroin and Opiate Overdose

Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs