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Is disposing of unused drugs in household trash the most environmental option?

During the most recent National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, Americans turned in 276 tons of unused medications. But there are likely additional expired or leftover pills still taking up space in medicine cabinets around the country.

Those who still have a surplus of prescription drugs may be interested in findings recently published in Environmental Science and Technology examining the various options for discarding medications and how these disposal methods impact the environment.

In the study (subscription required), researchers compared the financial costs, environmental impact, convenience and compliance of three disposal options: flushing, trashing and incineration. Shots reports:

Their results show that flushing allows the highest levels of drugs to enter the environment by far, and creates more air pollution than trashing.

Drugs collected by take-back programs are incinerated, which means none of the medicines themselves enter the environment. But the programs produce much greater emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants than either flushing or trashing. That's due in large measure to travel: people have to travel to a drop-off point, and then the collected drugs are shipped somewhere for incineration.

[Sherri Cook, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan,] says one benefit of home disposal is that we already have an infrastructure for collecting household trash. There's also evidence from Sweden, which has had a drug take-back program for decades, that participation stagnates at around 40 percent of consumers.

At those rates, Cook's research suggests the drugs getting into the environment would be about the same as if everybody threw them out at home, while producing three times as much pollution.

But Barbara Carreno, a DEA spokeswoman, says collection programs bring in people who otherwise might never have disposed of their old drugs. "People brought medicines to our [April] take-back that had been sitting in drawers, I kid you not, for 40 years," she says.

For more information on the topic refer to these federal guidelines (.pdf) for safely disposing of drugs at home or this online resource for locating nationwide medical disposal programs.

Previously: Turn in your old pills on April 28
Photo by Cavale Doom

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