The home medicine cabinet is a minefield. Each day, nearly 2,500 teens use prescription drugs to get high for the first time – and a majority of those pills are known to come from family and friends, including the medicine cabinet. Most leftover and expired medicines can be thrown in the household trash, and a few must be flushed down the toilet. But I suggest taking advantage of the growing number of community-based “take back” or drug disposal programs that offer a safer alternative.
Disposal programs, cost-effective programs allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. The drop-off locations vary across the country. Many are at police departments. Others are at temporary places like pharmacies and community centers. All of them use secure equipment and strict procedures to prevent theft or diversion.
I’ve seen first-hand in Florida as nervous parents returned containers of old drugs, fearful that their toddlers will get their hands on them or that their teens will want to experiment with them.
It’s no joke. Home medicine cabinets have become the new drug dealers. But it’s one drug dealer that parents can put a stop to. For me, the take-back programs are the only secure and environmentally sound way to dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals without contaminating surface and ground waters.
Started in the mid-2010s, the take-back programs spread fast to keep up with the prescription drug abuse epidemic that kills thousands and thousands of people annually in the United States. The effort picked up steam when the Drug Enforcement Administration organized the National Prescription Drug Take Back Days in September 2010, April 2011, and again this past August. Nearly 4,000 state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the nation have participated in these events, collecting more than 309 tons of pills. Another national take-back day is planned for tomorrow, October 29, so check the National Prescription Drug Take Back Days website to find upcoming events in your area. Unfortunately, there are restrictions on disposing of controlled substances. The DEA is working on changes to these rules to make it easier for people to dispose of controlled drugs. However, until these changes are made and there are regular disposal sites, many consumers keep prescribed drugs in their medicine cabinets and other places for a long time, not knowing how to get rid of them properly.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, the following steps need to be taken to dispose of unused medication:
- Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information that accompanies the medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first:
- Take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will be less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
- Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
Hopefully, it won’t be too long before take-back programs reach most corners of the country. This will address the real concern that teens could misuse these very accessible drugs.
Until that happens, let’s all make sure we clean out the medicine cabinets and get potentially dangerous leftover drugs out of our homes.
Karen H. Perry is the executive director of NOPE Task Force