Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Keeping your drugs out of my mug

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?


Robj98168 said...

You know the most responsible thing I can think of is use all of the drug - that is take the drug for the length prescribed- then there is no problem- as long as the doctor prescribes an adequate dosage amount there shouldn't be leftovers. Of course this is not practical as it is not realistic. But I take a numerous amount of drugs, and make sure my doctor prescribes the right amount. But rather than that I like the kitty litter idea.

Brad K. said...

I imagine that the local police are used to incinerating drugs.

But that raises an offtopic question in my mind.

When burning marijuana, do the officers stand upwind, or downwind?

Sparkless said...

I take all my unused medications back to the pharmacy. This is our drop off location. Here they will take over the counter medicine also and vitamins.

Bucky said...

When my grandfather was sick from cancer a few years ago, he was at home on hospice care. When he died, one of the first calls was to hospice, as they had continually directed.

Within minutes, someone from hospice was there -- to flush all of his meds down the toilet. That was the reason that they wanted to be first on the call list. To get rid of the meds.

I was appalled -- for many reasons. My first thought was OMG, all those chemicals in the water supply! My second thought was OMG, many tens of thousands of dollars in medicine just flushed away. Why aren't those pills being recycled and given to someone -- luckily unlike my grandfather -- who can't afford the drugs they need to keep them alive?

To your question, there are just some really nasty chemicals that we put into our bodies. With good reason. But the environmental damage these drugs can cause is something we need to consider.

Don't have any answers. Just concerns.

Liz said...

Only yesterday, I took a small collection of out-of-date medication to the pharmacist and handed it over. I've never heard it suggested (in the UK) that medicines be mixed with other rubbish and thrown out (and I don't have coffee grounds or kitty litter, so that probably wouldn't work for me).

psmflowerlady said...

I went to an awareness meeting at my childrens' high school that was presented by the local drug task force. They said that the most common source of street drugs in our little rural community is leftover drugs stolen from homes. I was appalled to discover (perhaps I am incredibly naive) that teens toss mixed pills into a bag and then pull out a certain number and take whatever they grab at what are called Skittle Parties. The law enforcement agent recommended that everyone dispose of unused meds. He didn't give a recommendation on how to do that. After the presentation, I tried to return some meds that had been prescribed by my doc (to which I was allergic, so it was practically a full prescription) and they looked at me like I had two heads. I never thought about the pharmacy. I'll give that a try.

Anna @ Blue Dirt said...

We have a septic system and have to recycle everything we can and burn our garbage that's left. It's not an optimal situation, but that's what happens in our area. Every time I clean out the medicine cabinet, I bring the leftover medicine to a pharmacy. Trying a new one every time, they all say wither we can't take it or we just throw it in the garbage.

We farm and feed our chickens organic feed, it's bad enough that we have to burn our garbage, but I'm not going to flush them so they end up back in our well. I'm not going to throw them away, so I can burn them and have whatever results from that get back to our drinking water. So I then throw them in the garbage of whatever store refused to take them.

Once again it's not an optimal system, but I'm not going to have it fall on my property. They should have a system for disposal. I'm still trying to find a place to take all the old batteries from the last few years!

Anonymous said...

I've been dealing with this problem for years! My daughter's immune suppressants come in a higher quantity than she can use before it's expired and there is no way to get less (something to do with mixing the compound, they probably come in certain pre-set amounts) I can relate to being looked at like I have two heads at the local pharmacies. (I haven't found a local take-back site!) If this stuff suppresses her immune system and has side effects like cancer or diabetes I *really* don't want to add it to our water system! I've done the ground up coffee method hoping that they do indeed seal the waste from reaching the ground water.

The other worry of what *we* excrete is also something I have thought about and don't have an answer to. I wonder if the 'unknowns' in our water and food are what causes the rise in allergies and behavioral problems etc. Makes me sad.

Greenpa said...

I think fire is a good path for disposal; if you have a woodburning stove. Toss them in when it's burning wide open and really hot. There might be an off product or two in the smoke; but negligible in quantity and toxicity; particularly compared to other disposal hazards.

Brad K. said...

I am confused.

I thought coffee grounds were supposed to go into the compost heap - what is this about throwing them in the trash?


I think most drug compounds break down under heat, but I doubt all of them do. And probably the heat needed for some would be hotter than a wood fire. In general, the fire would be a safer choice, short of a long-term sequestering in a land fill - which would also break down some of the chemicals, over time and exposure to moisture and other compounds like methane.

We have chemical dropoff days in our area, once or twice a year, where unused pesticides, paints and thinners, and other agribusiness chemicals can be dropped of for disposal (they are usually more remote than most farmers have time for). Requirements usually include being in the original container with an intact label, so they know how to dispose of it. Perhaps they would take prescription meds as well.

This is a good topic, thanks Crunchy.

Susan said...

In most places in Canada there is a take-back program ( We can bring prescription and over-the-counter medications to almost any pharmacy. The agency that runs the program then collects them and disposes of them (by incineration, I think). Here in British Columbia, this program has been in place since 1996.

Anonymous said...

The DEA does an annual take back event with local police departments to collect prescription's this weekend.

Surviving and thriving on pennies said...

we have been pretty lucky. Rarely do we ever get sick or need a prescription. Only for pain med's and usually from the dentist. We keep the very few they give us in our closet just in case for later use.
I agree with you. Keep healthy, and use all natural methods if possible.

You would think with all these drugs being prescribed, they would have a widely known program to do something about this.

Brad K. said...

Federal law prohibits reselling prescription drugs. So - how compliant are takeback programs at pharmacies and local police or sheriff? And why couldn't you pass unexpired stuff through Freecycle?

Wendy in Colorado said...

Our local landfill has a hazardous waste disposl facility where you can take paint, solvents, fluorescent bulbs, etc to be disposed of safely. They will also take prescription drugs you don't want. They have a big container with some kind of solvent in it and the person who brings in the drug has to personally drop the medications into the container, I don't know what they do when the container is full. Probably seal it and landfill it. At least it's more watertight than a bag of cat poop.

Tigerlily said...

I work at a hazardous waste drop off facility. We take things like motor oil, gas, solvents, paint, propane cylinders...and pharmaceuticals (everything from left over antibiotics to old vitamins). We collect it all in a steel drum then it gets shipped for incineration.

As for Bucky's story of his grandfathers cancer meds getting flushed, I think it's awful. Flushing should NOT be an option, and why can't the drugs be passed on to someone in need?

Anonymous said...

two words that will solve this problem of contamination in our water: Composting Toilet

emmer said...

particularly with by mouth medications, the liver does a damn good job of "detoxing" the pill and then sending it to the kidneys to be excreted. in practical terms, that means that many kinds of medications, including hormones, antibiotics, and antidepressants leave your body about 90% the same as they went in. another way of saying that is that most of the meds you take go thru the sewage treatment plant, arriving mostly in the form they went into your body in and then not changing while in the treatment ponds. they are then often diverted into local streams. that in turn explains why some salmon and other fish have both male and female reproductive parts. the joke here is that they don't care because there is also prozac in the water. very funny...