Disposal of Prescription Drugs

While it may seem like another chore, the proper disposal of prescription drugs is crucial to your safety and the safety of those around you.

When drug manufacturers test drug combinations, they are very careful to prevent chemical reactions.  These companies are accountable for the disposal of waste chemicals in a manner that does not negatively affect the environment or the lives of the people who work or live nearby.  However, once prescription drugs are in your home, the responsibility for properly disposing these drugs falls upon you.

Dangers of Expired Drugs

What should you do with medication that you don’t need anymore?  Don't keep it!  If you keep unused or expired prescriptions in your home, you may be endangering the well-being of your family. There were 294,317 cases of improper medicine use in 2019, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Approximately 9% of those cases — about 26,317 — involved accidental exposure to another person's medicine. Approximately 3,846 of these accidental exposure cases involved children 5 and younger.

Drugs can be dangerous in the wrong hands.  Your physician selects prescription drugs specifically for you.  A medicine that works for you could be dangerous for someone else and he could experience serious issues like heart or liver failure, or even die.  Proper disposal of your medication is vital in preventing unintended medical consequences.

Additionally, the abuse of prescription painkillers is a major problem in the United States.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 7 million Americans abuse pain medication.  Over-the-counter medications are the most commonly abused drugs by high school seniors.  Nearly 1 in 12 high school seniors reported abusing Vicodin and nearly 1 in 20 reported illegally using OxyContin.  Astonishingly, over 70% of these students obtained these drugs from a friend or a relative.

Do not give your unused prescription medications to your loved ones or keep unneeded medication.

Consequences for your Community

Failing to dispose of your prescription medication in a proper manner also has consequences on your community.  Prescription medication thrown into the trash ends up in landfills and can leak into underground water tables.  Medication flushed down the toilet will eventually make its way back to the same water treatment facilities that process your drinking water.  And while these facilities filter out contaminants, unwanted chemical compounds may make it past these screenings depending on their composition and size.

Proper Steps and Procedures

Proper disposal of prescription medication can be easy if you take the right steps.  The FDA publishes guidelines for the proper disposal of both over-the-counter and prescription medication.

  • Follow the specific disposal instructions listed on the prescription drug label or in the information provided with the medicine.  Do not flush medicines down the sink or toilet unless you are instructed specifically to do so.
  • The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) works with state and local law enforcement agencies to sponsor National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days.  These community drug take-back programs allow you to bring your unused medication to a central location and the sponsor will dispose of it for you.  Call your local government's household trash and recycling office (which is listed in the blue pages in your phone book) to locate and take advantage of a community drug take-back program. 

There are over 180 different locations across Georgia that will accept and safely dispose of your medication. For more information and to find a location near you, go to Georgia's Dose of Reality website at doseofrealityga.org/drug-takeback.

  • If disposal instructions are not listed on the prescription drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs out in your the household trash following these steps.

First, remove the drugs from the original container and mix them with something undesirable, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter.  This makes the drug less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may go through your trash intentionally seeking drugs.

Next, place the mixture in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the drug from leaking out of the garbage bag.

  • When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.
  • Remember to properly dispose of the medication container also.  Before throwing out your pill or medicine bottle, scratch out all of the identifying information (including your name, address, the name of your doctor, and the name of the drug itself) on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.  It will also reduce the potential of vandalism of your home or trash by individuals looking to obtain specific medications illegally.

Protect yourself, your family and your community by properly disposing of unneeded or expired medication.