Ask A Toxicologist > How do I dispose of medications safely?

How do I dispose of medications safely?

posted on 7:32 AM, May 7, 2013

As a toxicologist, I see the problems with no longer needed medications that get into the hands of children, often with serious consequences. A study in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2011 showed that unintentional ingestions are on the rise in children due to the increased quantity of medicines stored in the home. However, many people are concerned about reports of medication getting into the drinking water and don’t want to flush them down the toilet. Here are some questions and answers related to this issue.

Q. I don’t want to harm the environment, is it safe to flush medication down the toilet? 

A. Most medication enters the environment through the urine and feces of the patient taking the medicine ­so flushing really doesn’t increase the problem. Furthermore, the FDA believes that some medication is so dangerous, that it is better to flush it down the toilet. Check out this informative .pdf from the FDA. The easy rule to follow is that if you are done with the medication, and you have leftover pills or patches, flush it. This is especially true for all narcotic medications (patches or pills.) You can search the FDA website for more specific instructions regarding various medications.

Q. What about the rest of the medications?

A. The FDA recommends putting other medication into an unpalatable substance (kitty litter, coffee grounds, food waste) into a sealed plastic bag and putting that into your household trash. The information the pharmacist gives you with your medication should contain instructions on disposal, so you can also check that to be sure.

Q. I don’t want to flush my medications. How else can I dispose of it safely? I hear that stealing from medicine cabinets is one way children and others can obtain dangerous drugs.

A. Check out, where you can find a local collection site as part of their annual take back program. Sites can be found by searching by state and county. November 10th is the annual medication take back day.


Richard Hamilton M.D., FAAEM, FACMT, FACEP