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    Did You Know You Can Return Your Drugs? How to Practice Safe Disposal of Unused Drugs

    by Skye Sherman - July 9 , 2018


    Photo Credit: by CANPharmaWorld
    Photo Credit: by CANPharmaWorld

    Many people all across the world take prescription drugs. This simple necessity can be a very routine part of the everyday life and routine of a person from any walk of life or any race, nation, religion, or gender. However, while many people take prescription drugs, not many people know what to do with them when they are expired or when they go unused.

    While expired or unused drugs may not seem like a big deal, safe disposal of prescription drugs is actually a very important issue. Failing to practice safe medication disposal can be harmful to other people, animals, and even the environment! That’s why many countries and states have specific laws in place to govern this very issue. Reuse and recycling of prescription drugs are sometimes a valid option, but returning unused medications is a common practice as well.

    If you’re unsure about what to do about expired medication disposal, recycling medication, or returning unused medications, read on. In this article, we’ll explain all you need to know about the proper way to rid your home of prescription drugs that you no longer need or that are no longer safe to consume.

    Why You Should Dispose of Expired Drugs

    First things first. Some people may not feel sure about why they should bother to dispose of old prescription drugs in the first place. After all, you paid for them! Right? Who would throw away something they paid money for? Is taking expired prescription drugs really that dangerous? Plus, for a person who may not have good insurance coverage, this option may be especially tempting… Why not just save old drugs so you can take them when you need them?

    If this is a question you are asking as you look at expired or old drugs in your cabinet, it’s a good thing you’re here. Getting an answer to this question is of vital importance.

    First, we must look at why drugs have expiration dates in the first place. These warnings and boundaries are put in place for your protection. Prescription drugs are uniquely formulated with both active and inactive ingredients. They are specially made to be able to treat diseases effectively while remaining safe for consumption. In other words, the expiration date “is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.” After that, all bets are off. Is that really a risk you’re willing to take? This is your health and wellness at stake, after all!

    Taking a medication outside of its designated and clearly labeled shelf life means not only that the drug may no longer be effective, but that it may even be hazardous to your health. After a certain amount of time, a drug can begin to deteriorate and will no longer be effective or healthy to consume. It will not have the result you desire and may potentially be unsafe for you to ingest. Over time, a drug can start to disintegrate or even become discolored. If you notice these signs of expiration -- even if the expiration date has not yet passed! -- you should avoid the risk and simply acquire fresh medication. In short, taking expired drugs is not a risk worth taking.

    How to Know When It’s Time to Dispose of Old Drugs

    Wondering how to know when you should dispose of your drugs? This can be a confusing topic for many. However, the simple answer is that when you no longer need the prescriptions for whatever purpose they were prescribed to you, then you no longer need to keep a bottle of the pills in your medicine cabinet.

    In addition, another easy and obvious way to be able to tell when to dispose of your drugs is if they are approaching (or have reached) their marked expiration date. Pill bottles should state clearly on the label when the drug’s expiration date is, and you should never consume any pills past this date.

    Where and How are Prescription Drug Return Programs Operating?

    So, what should a person do with drugs that have expired or that they are no longer using or needing? In this section, we’ll explain about the solution you may not be aware of yet: drug return programs.

    Did you know? In the United States of America, there are 37 states (plus Guam) that have enacted donation and reuse laws for prescription drugs (as of October 2017). When it comes to donating or recycling your unwanted prescription drugs, there are a variety of programs set up to give you an easy way to do this. Yes, your old drugs (as long as they are not expired) can be reused in some cases! States may have pharmacies, charitable clinics, or hospitals that are set up to collect and re-distribute drugs that are donated. Where appropriate, these drugs can be provided to eligible patients who need them but may have trouble affording or acquiring them.

    Some states even have special drop boxes where patients can safely and properly dispose of their unused or unwanted prescription drugs. These Med Return boxes are available at some police stations and give patients a place to get rid of old medications when it comes time to clean out their medicine cabinets. Many people in the past have simply flushed their old medications down toilets or drains, but this is not an ideal solution to the problem. We’ll explain why below.

    Here are a few snapshots of the drug reuse programs across various states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, to help you better understand the impact of these organizations:

    * “Iowa created its program in 2007 and has served 70,000 patients and redistributed $15 million in free medication and supplies donated to people in need.

    * Wyoming’s Medication Donation Program was created in 2005 and has helped Wyoming residents fill over 125,000 prescriptions, adding up to over $10 million.

    * Oklahoma created its program in 2004 and has filled 193,926 prescriptions, worth about $19,151,731 based on the average wholesale price of medication, through the end of June 2016.”

    Numbers don’t lie. Clearly, these drug recycling programs make a big difference to thousands of patients. They also make a big difference when it comes to monetary bottom lines. They can be an extremely effective way to redistribute prescription medications that are still perfectly fine and safe for consumption by patients who currently are in need of them. This is a cost-effective and safe solution for unwanted prescription drugs. Redistributing or recycling them can be good for the worldwide community and the planet.

    All About Drug Return Programs

    Have you ever heard of the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day? This is a semi annual event put on by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). According to the site, “The National Prescription Drug Take Back Day aims to provide a safe, convenient, and responsible means of disposing of prescription drugs, while also educating the general public about the potential for abuse of medications.”

    This event is a major prescription drug return day. To illustrate: on the most recent National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, the DEA collected close to one million pounds of prescription drugs! The total weight of prescription drugs collected on this day alone was 949,046 pounds, or 474.5 tons. This is a huge amount of drugs that were taken out of people’s homes and put into a better place where they are needed and wanted.

    Need to dispose of drugs right away and can’t wait for the next Drug Take Back Day? Check out Take Back Your Meds to find an open medicine take-back location near you.

    Risks and Potential Problems with Prescription Drug Return

    Of course, there are a few guidelines and provisions in place to help protect the integrity of the existing drug recycling programs. They, too, have the potential to pose problems of their own, but with the proper boundaries, hopefully we can avoid this at large.

    A few examples of the boundaries put in place include not allowing the transfer of controlled substances, prohibiting the spread of adulterated or misbranded medication, and avoiding taking in any medications that are expired. In fact, in many cases, donated drugs have to have an expiration date that is more than six months away.

    It is important that all prescription drugs that pass through these programs are first checked out by a pharmacist to ensure that they are safe and accurate before they can be re-dispensed to a new patient. It is also important that the pharmaceuticals are in their original, sealed package and have not been opened or tampered with in any way.

    In addition, in many cases, pills must be donated by those who are professionally accredited. Some places do allow for individuals to donate, but the laws differ across state lines, so it’s important to check first before you make any decisions about what to do with your drugs. In addition, it’s important to note that for these programs, donations of old (expired) drugs or drugs that are in opened or partially used containers are never accepted due to the risk of contamination or tampering. And, of course, in most cases the donor cannot receive any sort of financial compensation for the drugs.

    Why is Proper Medication Disposal So Important?

    The importance of proper medication disposal should not be underestimated. The repercussions of bad disposal methods -- and, thus, the positive implications of proper disposal -- are huge. In fact, discarding medications properly so that they do not end up in the wrong hands or the wrong places may be able to do everything from discourage the opioid epidemic to save the planet!

    Why is it so important to rid your home of unused prescription drugs? According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “over 6 million Americans abused controlled prescription drugs. The study shows that a majority of abused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, often from the home medicine cabinet.”

    As another example, in early 2018, an annual drug take-back program “yielded 44 tons of expired, unused, and unwanted prescription drugs at 580 collection sites across New England.” Moreover, “The Drug Enforcement Administration said it’s estimated that 10 percent of the drugs were opioid pain killers. That means approximately 8,800 pounds of opioids were taken out of medicine cabinets and potentially off the streets.”

    Albert Angelucci, the DEA Acting Special Agent in Charge, says that take-back programs make homes safer because they remove medication that is “highly susceptible to diversion, misuse and abuse.”

    This is why it’s so important to get prescription drugs to a proper storage or disposal facility instead of taking matters into your own hands. Old or unused drugs cannot be of any good use when they’re just sitting around in the home, and they certainly are not safe to be consumed by people they are not prescribed to. (You should never provide your prescription medications to another person.) Unused medications that are sitting around in the medicine cabinet at home contain a potential for abuse by friends and family who could secure access to these unprescribed drugs. They are certainly not doing anyone any favors by just sitting in the bathroom cabinet and going bad!

    Cleaning out your medicine cabinet may help to protect friends and family members who would be tempted to abuse these powerful drugs, and it can also prevent accidental ingestion by babies, children, or unsuspecting people who are not paying close enough attention to the labels. If a powerful drug ends up in hands it is not prescribed to -- however it happens -- this only spells danger. If returning or properly disposing of your unused prescription drugs could prevent one overdose death or discourage one addict’s unhealthy habit, it would most certainly be worth it. There is no sense in allowing a person’s life to go to waste over drug abuse when there is so much out there to explore in the world.

    Still, while many understand that it is not beneficial to keep old drugs in their home, they may not be aware that the typical methods of medication disposal are not actually a good idea. While a person may mean well when they choose to flush old prescription medications down the toilet, this can actually be harmful to the local ecosystem and the environment as a whole.

    How? Well, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has actually found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in our source water before. This demonstrates why throwing prescription drugs down the drain may not be the best way to dispose of one’s old medications. Protecting your local water supply is a great reason to opt for proper medication disposal instead of simply tossing them out any old way in your home.

    Thus, appropriate disposal of old prescription medications -- meaning disposing of them in a proper receptacle and at the appointed times -- is not just safer for those around you and in your home, it’s also safer for the world at large.

    If you have any questions about what to do with your unused or unwanted prescription drugs, let us know. We’d be happy to help however we can.

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    Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, FL. Her work has appeared in Lonely Planet, AOPA Pilot, Palm Beach Illustrated, Skyscanner, and more.


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