Waste Medicine - The Problem

unwanted medicines

Medicine Abuse & Addiction

Medicine Poisonings & Overdoses

Medicines in the Environment


Most of us have leftover or expired medicines in our homes. About 1/3 of medicines sold go unused for many reasons.

Medicines save lives and treat illnesses. But expired or left-over drugs need to be handled safely and disposed of properly to prevent harm to people and our environment.  Washington needs a secure take back program for unwanted medicines.  Drug companies already provide these programs in some other countries, and should do the same here in Washington.

Medicine Abuse & Addiction: Our communities are struggling with an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, that is linked to the heroin crisis. Leftover and expired medicines that accumulate in our homes increase risks of medicine abuse and addiction. Many kinds of medicines are abused, including stimulants and over-the-counter cough syrups and antihistamines. Secure medicine take-back is part of a comprehensive approach to preventing medicine abuse endorsed in the National Drug Control Strategy.

Medicine Poisonings & Overdoses: To prevent poisonings and misuse, medicines need to be securely stored at home and securely disposed of at a take-back program when no longer needed.  Poisoning by prescription and over-the-counter medicines is one of the most common means of suicide and suicide attempts. Medicines are a common cause of home poisonings and ER visits. Drug overdoses exceed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths in Washington.

Medicines in the Environment: Prescription and over-the-counter medicines are found in many streams and waterways.  It’s a wide range of medicines – antibiotics, painkillers, antidepressants, and antihistamines – in the water and sediments.

For example, a U.S.G.S. study of studies in the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Longview found pharmaceuticals and other pollutants. Researchers are finding that even the low levels of powerful drugs found in our environment have the potential to impact fish and other aquatic species. A mixture of medicines have been found in Puget Sound salmon. Medicines are also found, at very low levels, in municipal drinking water supplies when the water source is not protected from wastewater effluents and other sources.

Improper disposal of unwanted household medications – estimated at 1/3 of all medicines sold - through flushing or trash disposal adds to pharmaceutical pollution in our waterways and drinking water supplies.

Medicines enter our waterways when they are flushed down toilets or when humans and animals pass medicines through their bodies. Flushing medicines is bad for the environment because septic systems and wastewater treatment plants can’t remove all drugs, and some medicines pass through into waterways.  While some drugs may be captured during wastewater treatment, they could make their way back into the environment through land application of biosolids.

  • A 2010 report by the U.S. EPA and WA Department of Ecology concluded that a “2008 screening study detected pharmaceuticals and personal care products in every influent, effluent, and biosolids sample analyzed from five Pacific Northwest wastewater treatment plants.”  Control of Toxic Chemicals in Puget Sound Phase 3: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Municipal Wastewater and Their Removal by Nutrient Treatment Technologies, USEPA 2010 Pub. Number 10-03-004

Throwing leftover medicines in the trash isn’t a good solution. Trash cans at the curb are not secure. Narcotics that are put in the trash might be picked up for illegal use.  And putting medicines in the trash doesn’t guarantee they won’t get into the environment from garbage cans or landfills. The liquid “leachate” that is captured from some landfills is typically sent to wastewater treatment plants, which cannot remove all medicines before discharging the water back into the environment.

The FDA, the DEA, and the EPA all support the use of medicine take-back programs as the best way to dispose of leftover drugs. Drug take-back is secure, and it’s the most environmentally sound because the drugs are completely destroyed by high temperature incineration. In areas where there are no drug take-back programs, federal and local agencies are having to advise people to throw medicines in the trash as an interim, or last resort measure. Some local governments prohibit flushing or trash disposal of waste household medicines.


FAQs – Learn more about secure medicine disposal and producer responsibility for secure drug take-back.

Last Updated (Monday, 20 February 2017 14:09)