The following is a draft excerpt from my book on toxins in the environment that will be coming out in 2011 from New Society Publishers:
My husband came home from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance the other day with a brochure on the proper disposal of prescription drugs. It was extremely timely since I was working on researching contaminants in our drinking water and prescriptions drugs were clearly something to think about. It was also pertinent because we have innumerable prescription drugs from my husband’s various cancer treatments and stem-cell transplants to dispose of.
Drugs such as birth control pills, mood stabilizers, steroids, antibiotics and narcotics flow unfettered through our waterways and, unfortunately, sewage treatment plants aren't engineered to remove them. They end up affecting the fish and aquatic animals and, ultimately, come right back around as our drinking water. No amount of chlorine in the drinking water is going to remove these contaminants so, in the end, it comes full circle and those used (and excreted) drugs that get flushed, get shared by everyone. Not too surprisingly, the brochure specifically says not to flush them down the toilet.
There are two recommended methods for the disposal of prescription drugs. I was somewhat amused by their first suggestion, but the idea is to mix unused prescription drugs with an undesirable substance such as used coffee grounds or used kitty litter, put them in a zip lock bag and throw them away.
This method is really to prevent children and pets (and possibly dumpster divers?) from snacking on the drugs. I'm not sure how effective this is, particularly if you have a dog, since they would regard the kitty litter and pills as a nice, tasty snack of Kitty Roca.
The runner-up method is to take them to a pharmaceutical take-back location, but they strongly encourage the first option, according to the federal guidelines. I don't know what they do with the drugs at the take-back locations, but I'm assuming they aren't flushing them down the toilet.
Unfortunately, you can't return narcotics or controlled substances to the pharmacies on the list - those drugs have to be returned to a law enforcement agency. I guess they don't trust the employees of the take-back locations to manage my huge bag of high-street-valued narcotics from when my husband was very ill.
I also don’t know what hazards there are from the degradation of the plastic entombed pills n’ poop in the landfill and the leaching out into groundwater but I suppose, at the very least, it's a less direct route than merely flushing them down the toilet where they end up readily in the waterways and in tap water.
Aside from proper disposal, the best thing is really, to take all of your medicine as prescribed by your doctor or, better yet (if possible), avoid them in the first place by staying healthy and relying on other, less toxic, ways of managing your health.
To find a take-back location in your area, check with the DEA's collection site database where you can search by zipcode or city/state.
What do you do with old prescription drugs? Or, what do you take instead of pharmaceuticals to deal with health issues?