How to dispose of unused prescription drugs safely

Medication ‘take back’ events, year-round options help prevent accidents

Pills in prescription bottle

The most recent Prescription Drug Take Back Day, held in October 2020, brought in nearly 1 million pounds of unused, expired and unwanted medications across the nation. It was the largest amount ever collected in the program’s history.

National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is coming up on April 24 to draw attention to providing safe and convenient ways of disposing prescription drugs.

Find take-back sites near you:

That total tonnage of unused drugs disposed of suggests an increased commitment to getting these unnecessary drugs out of circulation. It also hints, however, at the huge amount of drugs sitting idle in homes, posing potential problems.

“People need to realize that prescription medications are not safe to be just laying around,” said Jesse Breidenbach, Sanford Health system executive director of pharmacy. “That’s particularly true with the opioid issues that we see across the country.”

At risk of addiction

The CDC reports opioid overdose deaths involving prescription drugs rose steadily from 1999 to 2017, moving from 3,442 to 17,029 deaths in that time. In 2019, the total had dropped to 14,139, indicating awareness efforts are having an impact.

There remains a lot of work to do.

“The opioid epidemic didn’t go away when the pandemic hit,” Breidenbach said. “It may have become slightly worse because of all the social issues that were going on. People need to continue to get rid of prescription medications that they’re not going to use — it’s really the focus of the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.”

Throughout Sanford Health, providers are sensitive to the potential dangers. Doctors have become “opioid stewards” who focus on prescribing the appropriate amounts when dealing with patients’ pain management.

Don’t just trash medications

For patients, there are right ways and wrong ways to dispose of medications. Just throwing them away in the trash does not ensure safety. For that reason, many Sanford locations offer the MedSafe Medication Disposal System.

These drop boxes are double-locked medication safe boxes that meet the requirements of the DEA Controlled Substances Act.

“We’ve heard of cases where medication may been thrown away but then retrieved from garbage cans,” Breidenbach said. “The safe boxes are easy and convenient. We just need people to know that they shouldn’t keep these medications around the house that they’re no longer taking. That’s when bad things can happen.”

In North Dakota, unused drugs can also be donated to people who need the same medication under the Drug Repository Program. It allows people to bring in prescription medications they do not plan to use. Pharmacies and practitioners participating in the program can then give them to those in need who can’t afford their medications.

The easiest and quickest way to rid yourself of unused prescription medications would be to flush them away in your own home. But in many cases, it’s a practice that can contaminate the environment, including surface and drinking water.

There indeed are medications where it is OK to flush them away if a drug take-back location is not available. The FDA has an actual “flush list,” in fact. If the medication is not on the list, it’s best to dispose of them in a safe box.

While April 24 is a day to draw attention to this issue, it’s ultimately a year-round campaign with safe-box locations accessible every day.

“Ongoing awareness of this is going to help,” Breidenbach said. “National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is a great thing. We shouldn’t be keeping drugs around. If you don’t plan to use them, get rid of them in a safe manner.”

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Posted In Chemical Dependency, Emergency Medicine