Safe Disposal of Medicine

By Meghan Hessenauer

I never really gave much thought about medicine until now. Now I need medicine. Now I am a mother and my kids take medicine. Now I study how medicine is disposed of as part of my job as an environmental scientist. And now, I know just how serious a problem unintentional poisoning can be. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 142,000 children were seen in emergency rooms in 2004 and 2005 because of medication poisonings, and more than 80 percent of those poisonings were because an unsupervised child found and consumed medications.

I used to keep my medicine in the bathroom under the sink or in the medicine cabinet. I now know that is not a good idea. Besides being subject to steam and heat, the medicine can be reached by my kids if I store it in the bathroom cabinet. Being the little explorers that they are, my kids see cabinets as perfect treasure boxes – all of this little stuff to play with and potentially ingest.

Additionally, pharmaceutical compounds have been detected at low concentrations in our nation’s rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water, leading to concerns that these compounds may affect aquatic life. For these reasons, EPA initiated a study of unused pharmaceutical disposal practices at health care facilities with the goals of understanding one way in which pharmaceuticals enter our waterways and also understanding what factors contribute to pharmaceuticals entering through water. While EPA understands that there are many factors influencing the handling and disposal of pharmaceuticals by the health care industry, the focus of EPA’s study is on disposal into water. EPA decided to study medical facilities because the Agency believes that these facilities dispose of a large quantity of unused pharmaceuticals.

If you have not already done so, take a thorough look at your medicine cabinet. Find a new location to store your medicine that is not in the bathroom and is up high and out of reach of kids. Properly dispose of the medicine that you no longer use. Don’t dump it in the toilet or down the drain – if possible, take it to a prescription drug take-back event this weekend. Chances are there’s a drop-off location in your neighborhood. To find a drug take-back drop-off point, visit the Drug Enforcement Administration’s web page.

About the author: Meghan Hessenauer is an environmental scientist in EPA’s Office of Water. She is writing guidelines for the health care industry on how to manage their unused pharmaceuticals.