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The word “opioid” is a buzzword these days, as news organizations increasingly cover the topic and more people learn about (or are affected by) the nationwide epidemic. The root of the problem is that these dangerous drugs, which include pain relievers like OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone), codeine, and morphine, are available by prescription. They’re highly addictive and can deteriorate someone’s life without proper monitoring and support.*

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster approved the 22-member plaintiffs’ leadership team to spearhead more than 180 lawsuits brought over the opioid epidemic. The lawsuits allege that manufacturers overstated the benefits and downplayed the risks of the drugs, and drug distributors failed to properly monitor suspicious prescription orders.

Elsewhere, researchers are looking for ways to avoid the risk of opioid addiction. Chemist Gary Matyas is developing a vaccine to help heroin users quit using the drug.

If these drugs are so dangerous, what happens if they end up in our trash or water system after someone disposes of them? Opioids aren’t the only kind of medication that draws concern. People with unused antibiotics, contraceptives and other drugs must take appropriate precautions when getting rid of them.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers three ways to safely dispose of unneeded medications:

  • Medicine take-back programs
  • Disposal in the household trash
  • Disposal by flushing in the toilet

Medicine take-back options, which include periodic events and permanent collection sites, are the preferred way to safely dispose of most medicines.

The FDA notes that consumers and caregivers should remove expired or unused medicines from their home as quickly as possible to prevent others from accidentally taking or intentionally misusing them.

Medicine Take-Backs: Periodic Events

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) periodically hosts National Prescription Drug Take-Back events, setting up temporary collection sites around the country for the safe disposal of prescription drugs.

Medicine Take-Backs: Permanent Collection Sites

Some communities have permanent sites, where DEA-registered collectors securely take and dispose of medicines. Authorized permanent collection sites may be in retail pharmacies, hospital or clinic pharmacies, and law enforcement facilities. Some may offer mail-back programs or collection “drop-boxes” to offer a quick and easy way to get rid of medicines.

Flushing Medications

Some drugs have specific directions to immediately flush unused portions down the toilet when take-back options are not readily available. Drugs that have these instructions are typically those that could be harmful or fatal for people to take without being prescribed them.

Trashing Medications

If there are no take-back programs or DEA-registered collectors in your area, and the drug packaging has no flushing instructions, the FDA explains that it’s OK to dispose of unused medicine in the household trash. Here’s how:

  1. Mix whole pills or capsules with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds.
  2. Place the mixture in a container such as a sealable plastic bag.
  3. Throw the container in the trash.
  4. Remove all personal information on the prescription label and packaging and dispose of the container.

The FDA’s graphic to the right illustrates how to take these steps to properly dispose of your medicines in the trash.

There is environmental concern with regard to disposing of drugs in the trash or toilet. The FDA’s paper titled “Risks associated with the environmental release of pharmaceuticals on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ‘flush list’” evaluates the environmental and human health risks associated with the flushing of 15 medicines.

It’s everyone’s duty to use and dispose of their medications appropriately. Taking the right steps can help prevent misuse, accidental ingestion, and other serious problems.

*If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, seek treatment options right away. Don’t wait. For many people, opioid addiction is impossible to stop without professional assistance, and it’s our job as family members and friends to lend help and support when it’s needed.


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