On the Air: The Big Reasons Not to Flush Old Medicines

Over the years, you may have heard that the recommended way to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals is to flush them down the toilet or pour them down the drain—not anymore. The EPA and FDA backed off this recommendation for almost all drugs (exceptions are listed on the FDA website). Medicines are among the thousands of “chemicals of emerging concern” the EPA and much of the scientific community now monitor and study.

Today for our EcoMyths/Worldview segment, Jerome and I discussed the pros and cons of flushing medicines with two experts: Olga Lyandres, PhD, of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and Commissioner Debra Shore of the MWRD.

Both had a lot to say about the dangers of and the solutions for the contamination of our drinking water by dissolved pharmaceuticals and other household products. (See how we “flush” this myth in the full article.)

Why Dispose of Unused Drugs?

The “chemical soup” that Olga mentions is of concern because of the strange mix of chemicals that we dispose of in our waste stream. These chemicals show up in trace amounts in our drinking water, creating a potentially harmful cocktail of chemicals. (More on that here.)

Common chemicals in the waste stream include Prozac, Viagra, and caffeine. As she explained, no one understands the chemistry that occurs when these and other compounds are mixed together. Nor is much is known about the potential impacts on human health. But studies show adverse ecological impacts of endocrine disruptors in our waterways, including “intersex fish”—that is, the male fish in the Potomac River Watershed bearing eggs!

Two really important reasons to properly dispose of unused medicines? 1) To prevent accidental, and possibly fatal, use of the drug by people for whom the medicine was not prescribed. 2) To prevent environmental contamination in of our waterways and soils. Which leads us to ask…

What Can a Person Do To Help?

First, it is important to note that using expired medications is potentially harmful to your health. Once a medicine expires, not only can it lose its potency, but also its chemical composition may have changed.

Over the past two years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has increased focus on this issue by instituting nationwide pharmaceutical “Take Back Days.” By making it easier for people to dispose of their medicines safely, the DEA has collected millions of pounds of drugs as a result of this program. The next National Drug Take Back Day is April 27, 2020 and will be administered by state law enforcement.

Debra points out that sewage treatment plants do not have the capabilities to clean out the thousands of chemicals that get into the waste stream from home plumbing, storm water, and other sources. So we have to do our part to keep chemicals out of the water system in the first place.

Both Debra and Olga advise people to keep an eye on the expiration dates of their prescribed and over-the-counter medications. When the drugs are expired or unused, there are several safe ways to dispose of medicines to keep them out of getting into your drinking water. Below are our experts’ recommendations on safe disposal.

Disposing of Medicines Safely

  • Local municipal and other agency collection sites: Debra recommends finding a drug collection location near your home.  The Illinois EPA lists medication disposal locations by county. The MWRD also participates in the DEA Take Back days at several of its water treatment plants in Cook County.
  • Special envelopes sold at local stores: Major pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, sell specially designed envelopes for mailing used medicines to safe disposal facilities.
  • Trash it as a last resort: If there are no local medicine disposal alternatives, the FDA recommends throwing away old medicine in a plastic bag after mixing it with kitty litter or coffee grounds. This is not the best option, since the bag goes into a landfill. There is a chance that eventually the package could leak and the drugs leech into groundwater. However, disposing expired medications in the trash is still better than flushing them down the toilet.

—As part of the Worldview/EcoMyths partnership, this blog also appears on the Chicago Public Radio page, where you can also download the related podcast.