Safely dispose unwanted, expired drugs this Saturday


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Do you have unused or expired medications that you don’t know what to do with? Here’s a smart, safe, environmentally friendly solution: take part tomorrow (Saturday, September 29, 2012) in the fifth National Prescription Drug Take-Back Event, coordinated by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm you can hand over old prescription and over-the-counter drugs at one of more than 5,000 sites across the country. (Click here to find a site near you.)

During last spring’s take-back, the participating police stations, hospitals, and other sites collected more than 552,161 pounds of drugs.

If you miss this fall’s take-back program, check the DEA’s website next spring for the next event. If you can’t wait and need to clean out your medicine cabinet now, here’s how FDA recommends disposing most drugs:

  • Take the medication out of its original container, mix it with used coffee grounds, kitty litter, or dirt, and put this unappetizing blend in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid or in a sealable plastic bag. Put the container or bag into your regular garbage.
  • Scratch off the prescription label and any identifying information from the original container to protect your identity and the privacy of your health record, and recycle or dispose of the container.

This advice doesn’t apply to strong painkillers and sedatives. If you can’t find a take-back program, the FDA says to flush these drugs down the toilet. Although that isn’t the ideal solution—medications flushed down the toilet can eventually make their way into rivers, lakes, and drinking water supplies—it will limit the number of tragedies that happen when children, pets, and other living creatures get into unused medications. The FDA’s Web site provides a list of the 25 “flush-only” drugs as well as more information on disposing unwanted medications.

Leftover drugs pose a problems for people and the environment. (See this article on drugs in our water supplies from the June 2011 Harvard Health Letter.) So take advantage of the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day by giving yours to the DEA—an organization that has had lots of practice safely disposing drugs.

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter


  1. Kris Rosa

    I want a shingles vaccine but, I am allergic to MSG. My doc says NO. Wondering how much MSG is in the vacine? ,

  2. Jay Rosen

    As stated in the disposal recommendation web site,DON’T FLUSH. Mix with garbage residue (coffee grounds, etc), and throw out pills in trash. My drinking water doesn’t need oxycodone in it.

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