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The unfortunate reality when it comes to drug disposal is that many consumers don’t know the right way to discard their old prescriptions. Many forget about existing drugs in the home, while others opt to flush or throw away their unwanted pharmaceuticals. The result is often pills that end up in landfills, the water supply or in the hands of a child or potential abuser.

To protect the environment and our communities, consumers should be aware of potential disposal complications and be educated on the proper methods of disposing unneeded drugs.

What not to do with old prescriptions

Many people grew up in households where it was customary to toss old prescriptions in the trash, leave them laying around the house or flush them down the toilet or sink; however, these practices can have serious repercussions. There are three main reasons why these means of disposal are both inadequate and dangerous.

1. It has a negative environmental impact

Improper prescription disposal can lead to drugs leaching into the water system. In recent years, a number of pharmaceutical-related chemicals have been found in waterways across the country and even in our drinking water.

According to the University of Illinois, these chemicals can be traced back to drugs such as antibiotics, anti-depressants, steroids, seizure medications, painkillers and more. These chemicals not only have the potential to harm humans, they also threaten marine ecosystems. Studies have shown that these prescription chemical byproducts are causing changes in the behavior, reproduction and growth of many species, specifically frogs and fish.

To understand the dangers of flushing pills down the toilet or throwing them in the trash, it is important to first understand how prescriptions end up in our waterways in the first place.

Medication can reach water in a number of ways. Shockingly, 40 percent of the nation’s water supply is permeated by pharmaceuticals through aquifers deep underground, according to an Associated Press investigation.

It’s not just consumers who are improperly disposing of medications, either. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), livestock farms, hospitals and nursing homes are all large contributors of the prescriptions that end up in our waterways. Since septic systems and wastewater facilities are not designed to remove medicinal chemicals from water, there is no current treatment to remove traces of pharmaceuticals from treated water. Even if you choose to throw your prescription pills away in the trash, they’ll still likely end up being pumped to wastewater treatment plants.

2. It can lead to accidental poisoning

When old drugs are left insecurely in a home rather than disposed of properly after their use, it’s easy for children or pets to get access to them and face accidental poisoning.

Children are naturally curious. Pills that may be colorful or look like candy can especially present a poisoning threat to young children when left around the home. Each year, more than 60,000 kids ages 5 and under unintentionally take a medicine or overdose on it. Even more alarmingly, studies have found that 95 percent of unintentional medication overdose visits to emergency rooms are caused by a young child who got into medicine while a parent or caregiver wasn’t looking.

3. It can open the door to abuse

Improper drug disposal can make it easy for would-be abusers to access medications that are no longer needed. With the opioid epidemic rising throughout the country, it’s more important than ever that drugs aren’t within easy reach of someone who might abuse them.

According to the Rockville, Maryland-based Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), many teenagers mistakenly believe prescription drugs are safer or less harmful than other kinds of drugs. However, what is unrealized by many is that the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States isn’t cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines—it’s prescription pills. Knowing the basics of prescription disposal can help individuals better manage their medications to make it less likely that old drugs aren’t abused.

How to properly dispose of unwanted medications

There are many reasons why someone might want to get rid of old pills. Perhaps an individual no longer needs their prescription or maybe they didn’t use quite as many pills as they thought they would and they’ve expired. Regardless of the situation, it’s imperative individuals follow disposal best practices.

1. Drug take-back programs

Several times per year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day to provide a safe, convenient and responsible way for disposing medications.

Since its inception in 2010, the DEA has collected more than 9-million pounds of medicine from the public on drug take-back days. Moreover, the program has seen an increase in participation, as last fall’s event collected a record-setting 912,305 pounds of prescription drugs.

While this is happening at the national level, many states and counties are getting involved in take-back initiatives by launching their own programs in an effort to reduce the public health and environmental impacts of unused drugs.

Earlier this year, five New York state hospitals collected unused pharmaceuticals for free as part of a six-month drug take-back pilot program. This program encouraged residents to drop off expired or unused medications via collection kiosks and prepaid mail-back envelopes for free.

To help individuals find take-back programs near their home, the DEA’s National Take-Back Day website features a collection site locator and has more information on national, state- and county-specific take-back programs.

2. Drug collection kiosks

Many retailers and hospitals are joining in on community drug collection efforts by installing drug collection kiosks at convenient locations.

For example, Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens and Lake Forest, Illinois-based waste disposal company Stericycle Environmental Solutions recently teamed up to install more than 600 drug collection kiosks in Walgreens stores nationwide to provide a safe, convenient and free way for consumers to return unused medication. Discarding old medicine in these kiosks is as simple as putting a letter in the mailbox. Plus, the availability of these kiosks helps ensure consumers have access to safe, easy and free drug disposal.

Not only are kiosks convenient for regular customers, they also present higher volume potential, increased store foot traffic and can be used as a public service marketing tool.

Consumers wanting to participate in these programs should be aware of the type of drugs that can and cannot be accepted. Most medications, vitamins, ointments, liquids and lotions can be accepted, while needles, inhalers, hydrogen peroxide and illegal drugs cannot.

3. Smarter purchases

Of course, the easiest way to cut down on prescriptions in the waste stream is by citizens making more conscientious purchases. When sick, consumers should only buy the medicine they need instead of stocking up. Consumers should also skip bulk purchases and ask their doctors for smaller amounts of medication when the situation dictates.

By making more mindful disposal decisions, consumers can better manage their prescriptions in a socially and environmentally conscious manner. The end result is that households and communities throughout the country can benefit from reduced contamination and safer neighborhoods.

Maricha Ellis is the vice president of marketing and sales operations of Stericycle Environmental Solutions.