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Safely Dispose of Unused Medications Now to Prevent Unsafe Use Later

In 2016, approximately 4.45 billion prescriptions were issued in the U.S. Yes, that’s BILLION with a “B!” This was a significant increase from the 3.99 billion prescriptions dispensed in 2010. Approximately two out of three of the prescriptions written in 2016 went unused and became waste.

Unused or expired prescription medications can find their way into the wrong hands and lead to accidental poisonings, misuse and overdose by adults, children and even pets.

  • In 2016, over 6.2 million Americans misused controlled prescription drugs – a majority of these drugs were obtained from family and friends, often from the home medicine cabinet.
  • Medications are the leading cause of child poisoning.
  • Up to 20 percent of pediatric poisonings involve a grandparent’s medication.
  • In 2016, 11.6 billion opioid pills were prescribed – enough for every adult and child in the U.S. to have 36 pills each. In that same year, an estimated 3.3 billion of those pills went unused.
  • Nearly one-third of people age 12 and over who used drugs for the first time began by using a prescription drug for nonmedical purposes.

Fewer than seven percent of patients with unused opioids reported taking advantage of “take-back” programs to turn in unused pain medication. The next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is Saturday, April 27, 2019 from 10:00 a.m.–2:00

It is strongly recommended that consumers and caregivers remove expired or unused medicines from their home as quickly as possible to reduce the chances of accidental ingestion or intentional misuse. Disposing of medications properly helps prevent:

  • Medications being taken by someone they were not prescribed to
  • Leftover drugs ending up on the street or being sold
  • Access by friends and family members who may be struggling with addiction
  • Drugs being introduced into the water supply and surrounding environment

Common Drug Disposal Options

There are several options for the safe disposal of expired, unwanted or unused medications:

National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day

Sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), this event happens twice a year, in the spring and fall.

LIUNA Health and Welfare Funds

Check with your prescription drug benefit carrier or your LIUNA health and welfare fund to see if they offer any prescription drug disposal options as part of your benefits. Some benefit plans automatically include prescription drug disposal bags with opioid prescriptions and some will make disposal bags available for other medications too.

Police Stations

There are often safe, locked drop boxes at local police stations year-round where unused medications can be deposited. These drop boxes generally don’t accept needles, syringes, lancets, injection pens or contaminated materials such as gloves, tubing or IV bags.


Several pharmacy chains, including CVS and Walgreens as well as independent pharmacies, have installed safe medication disposal kiosks or drop boxes. Click here to find a permanent drug disposal site near you.

  • Drop boxes and kiosks are generally available during regular pharmacy hours.
  • They accept prescriptions (Schedule II–V controlled and non-controlled substances) and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
  • Restricted items often include needles, inhalers, thermometers, aerosol cans, hydrogen peroxide and illegal drugs.
  • Many pharmacies also offer a mail-back program where customers can mail medications to a disposal facility. Some pharmacies may charge for this service, so contact your local pharmacy to find out.

Tips for Household Disposal

If none of the above options are available, it is possible to safely dispose of drugs at home:

  • Take drugs out of their original container and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. Put this mix in a sealable bag, empty can or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
  • Do not flush medicines down the sink or toilet unless the prescription drug label or patient information instructs you to do so. Some communities prohibit this practice over concern for drugs making their way into rivers, lakes and community drinking water supplies.
  • Scratch out all identifying information on prescription drug pill bottles. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.

It may take a little extra effort, but you can make a difference, and maybe even save a life, by properly disposing of your unused medication.

[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]

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