When thinking about pharmaceuticals, modern society tends to focus on the front end. We seek out the best medications to manage our health conditions. We concern ourselves with how much the co-pay will cost us and wonder whether the side effects are worth the therapeutic benefit.
What about all of the medicines that come into our possession that we never take? Sure, you were supposed to, but you never quite finished that 10-day supply of antibiotics. What about the over-the-counter cold medicines you tried first but didn’t work? Well, they’re way out of date. Oh, and when your auntie died, you wanted to do the right thing with her old medications but didn’t know how to dispose of them.
What should we do with our unwanted, unneeded and out-of-date pharmaceuticals and supplements? Toss them in the garbage? Flush them down the toilet? Do we just leave them in medicine cabinets where anyone can access them?
A recent article in the American Journal of Nursing stated the obvious: "Drugs have been migrating into bodies of water and other eco-systems ever since they came into use. Only recently, however, have scientists had the technology to identify and measure specific medicinal compounds in the earth’s water and soil."
Not only are medications finding their way into our water, according to Commander Gary Pitkin of the Napa Special Investigations’ Bureau, they’re finding their way into our children’s hands. Abuse of pharmaceutical drugs is currently among drug enforcement’s greatest concerns around the country. Teens report that these household pharmaceuticals are easier to obtain than street drugs. We even hear reports of “pharm parties” where teenagers steal medications from the family medicine chest, meet up with friends and make a magic POG with everyone’s contribution.
The federal guidelines for drug disposal are:
Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet or drain unless the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs you to do so. For information on drugs that should be flushed, visit the FDA’s website.
If a drug take-back or collection program is not available:
1. Take your prescription drugs out of their original containers.
2. Mix drugs with an undesirable substance, such as cat litter or used coffee grounds.
3. Put the mixture into a disposable container with a lid, such as an empty margarine tub, or into a sealable bag.
4. Conceal or remove any personal information, including Rx number, on the empty containers by covering it with black permanent marker or duct tape, or by scratching it off.
5. Place the sealed container with the mixture, and the empty drug containers, in the trash.
Some forward-thinking communities across the nation have begun to create drug take-back programs that function throughout the year. Last year, Hawaii began to get on board in a big way. The State Department of the Attorney General, the Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and community partners took part in a Nationwide Prescription Drug Take-Back program starting last September.
This program enables people to turn in unused and expired prescription medications with anonymity at collection sites across Hawaii. The take-back program was designed to include neighbor islands. Drugs are then incinerated according to federal and state environmental guidelines. The state intends to continue the program this year. Stay tuned for drug take-back opportunities in October.
The patient co-pay amount for a needed medication affects your health and money today. However, what we do with our unused medications could have still greater impact on our well-being and economy for generations to come.