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How to safely dispose of pain medication

When opioids are not safely disposed, there’s the risk that they’ll get into the wrong hands. Leaving pain medication in the cupboard, the cabinet or elsewhere in the house increases the likelihood of the medication being ingested by children or pets. So how do you get rid of it?

Some studies have found that flushing and unsafe disposal of strong painkillers like oxycodone and fentanyl can cause trace amounts of the drug to leach into soil and groundwater or make its way into rivers and lakes. One study, conducted by the United States Geological Survey and published in 2002, found trace amounts of medications in 139 streams in 30 states. But recent recommendations from the FDA advise getting them out of the house by any means possible, including flushing.

From the FDA on risks of flushing medication down the toilet sink: “FDA is aware of reports of very low but measurable levels of medicines in surface waters such as rivers and streams, and to a lesser extent in drinking water. Disposal of these select few medicines by flushing would contribute only a small fraction of the total amount of medicine found in our surface and drinking water. The majority of medicines found in water are a result of the body’s natural routes of drug elimination (in urine or feces).”

There are other ways to safely dispose of painkillers

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that opioid medications be disposed at specific take-back collection programs or medication drop box sites. Medication drop boxes are containers that come in various sizes, typically made of metal or plastic and often found at police stations, pharmacies, hospitals, or medical clinics.

Disposal boxes in your area, can be found on this DEA webpage. The contents of the box are considered pharmaceutical waste, and either get incinerated or sent to a landfill.

Pharmacist Courtney Chavis advises this: “Get a zip lock bag to put the pills in and add a small amount of water until the pills to start to dissolve. You want to mix a non-food item with it so that people or animals can’t get to it…like kitty litter, coffee grinds, dirt, shredded paper. When it’s all mixed up, it turns into a paste [within the bag] that you can put in the trash.”

And coming soon: New technology allows people to deactivate drugs at home with drug deactivating pouches. In Kentucky, Attorney General Andy Beshear has distributed 50,000 pouches to Kentucky residents as part of a pilot program to test home disposal. The system has been proven to deactivate 99 percent of prescription medicationm according to the company, Deterra.

To use the pouches, the unwanted medication is placed in a drug deactivating pouch with hot tap water. Within 30 seconds, deactivating chemicals inside the pouch bind to the unused medication to neutralize it,making the drug no longer effective. The pouch then can safely be placed in the trash. States with areas of high opioid use are beginning to provide these pouches at local pharmacies as well.