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Proper Disposal of Unused Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products

Medication

As April begins to fade into May, it’s time to do a little spring cleaning around the house. This includes the removal and proper disposal of any old or unused medications that may be stored in medicine cabinets or in other areas of your home.  Overtime, we all seem to accumulate outdated pharmaceuticals, personal care products, or over-the-counter medications that are well beyond their expiration dates or no longer prescribed for use.  Ensuring the safe disposal of these pharmaceuticals and personal care products is a growing environmental concern in the United States for a variety of reasons.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines pharmaceuticals and personal care products, often referred to as PPCPs, as any of the following:

  • Prescription, over-the-counter drugs, and illegal drugs: These drugs include antidepressants, tranquilizers, psychiatric drugs, cancer drugs, pain killers, anti-inflammatories, blood pressure medications, antiseptics, lipid regulators, oral contraceptives, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and many other classes and types of drugs.
  • Veterinary drugs
  • Perfume or cologne
  • Cosmetic beauty aids, including sun-screen products
  • Detergents
  • Vitamins or other dietary supplements (also called nutraceuticals)

While PPCP’s are available from a variety of sources and are marketed for use by humans, pets, or livestock, it is their improper disposal that threatens our health and community.  Many unused drugs and personal care products are often poured down drains, flushed down toilets, or simply thrown away by consumers who are unaware of the dangers these chemicals pose to our environment.  The harm comes when these chemicals end up in our water supplies, including surface and ground water resources, wastewater treatment systems, or in our public landfills.  In some municipalities where consumers are directly connected to wastewater treatment plants, PPCPs that are poured down sinks or flushed down toilets may pass through some type of pre-treatment before they are discharged into the surrounding rivers or lakes. However, according to the EPA, not all wastewater treatment plants are equipped to remove trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and other household chemicals on a routine basis.  The presence of PPCP’s in our water resources can also have adverse effects on wildlife as well, especially in aquatic ecosystems.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends avoiding the flushing of expired or unwanted drugs down toilets or sink drains. Instead the EPA encourages consumers to take advantage of drug take back opportunities that may be offered in their local communities.  Over the last 4 years, National Pharmaceutical Drug Take Back Days have been held across the United States. These nationwide events sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in partnership with local law enforcement agencies, have collected and disposed of a total of 2,411 tons of discarded prescription drugs in accordance with environmentally approved methods.  According to the DEA, “Unused prescription medications in homes create a public health and safety concern, because they can be accidentally ingested, stolen, misused, and abused.”  In fact, the majority of prescription drugs abused today, especially among teenagers, are found no further than the medicine cabinets of family or friends.

In Baldwin County, the Sheriff’s Department’s main office located in Bay Minette and its satellite office in Fairhope, maintain a 24 hour/7 days a week drop box in the lobby for the disposal of outdated or unused pharmaceuticals.  Citizens are encouraged to take advantage of this quick and convenient means of disposing old and outdated medications safely.  For security purposes, it is recommended that you remove the labels or scratch out any personal information on the containers before disposing of them.  You may also wish to check with a national pharmacy chain located in your area to see if they offer any type of drug disposal program.

The Urban Affairs and New Nontraditional Programs unit of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System offers educational resources and workshops that enable citizens to safeguard their home and environment from the dangers associated with the management and disposal of expired or unwanted pharmaceutical drugs. One such program, Synergistic Efforts to Reduce Pharmaceutical Impacts on the Environmental Program (SerPIE) outlines these dangers and offers the consumer information regarding alternatives to disposing of PPCP’s directly into sink drains or toilets. For more information regarding the safe disposal of outdated or unused pharmaceuticals or the SerPIE Program’s outreach activities, please contact Denise Heubach, an Urban Regional Extension Agent II with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at 251-574-8445 or dhh0006@auburn.edu .