Not so fast: If you do, you could damage the environment or put a child at risk.
Fortunately, there is a better way to rid yourself of unneeded medicines, thanks to the Medicine Take Back Program, says Rachel Donnette, education and outreach specialist with Thurston County Environmental Health.
Here's what you do:
• Gather your unwanted medications.
• Keep them in their original containers and mark out any personal information.
• Find a pharmacy drop-off location near you by going to www.MedicineReturn.com or calling 800-RECYCLE (800-732-9253). In Thurston County, you can bring old medications to Group Health at 700 Lilly Road N.E. in Olympia.
• Deposit the medications in the secure bin marked "medication return" in the lobby.
Not absolutely everything can be returned, however.
Items accepted are:
• Prescription medications;
• Over-the-counter medications;
• Medication samples;
• Medications for pets;
• Medicated ointments/lotions;
• Liquid medication in glass or leak-proof containers.
Items not accepted are:
• Controlled substances (narcotics);
• IV bags;
• Bloody or infectious waste;
• Personal care products;
• Business waste;
• Empty containers;
• Hydrogen peroxide;
• Aerosol cans.
The wastes will be disposed of by an approved hazardous waste incinerator, Donnette said.
Why it's important
There are many reasons to participate, despite the seeming ease of just flushing those old pills and prescriptions.
Wastewater treatment is not effective in eliminating pharmaceutical compounds, according to a report by the Pharmaceuticals from Households: A Return Mechanism Pilot Team, which includes the state Department of Ecology and Board of Pharmacy.
According to the report, researchers suspect that hormones and medicines in the water might be responsible for effects on wildlife including feminization of male fish, sluggish activity or reduced appetite.
Per capita in Washington, the average person has 8.9 prescriptions a year. A statewide medicine take-back program would collect some 82,757 pounds a year.
There are other considerations for proper disposal: Children sometimes find medicines in the garbage and take them.
According to the state Department of Health, nine children die annually from poisoning, 465 are hospitalized and 3,490 visit the doctor.
Also, according to the Northwest Product Stewardship Council:
• There is increasing concern regarding the disposal of pharmaceuticals in landfills, including worry that landfill liners might leak over time, resulting in discharge of pharmaceutical contaminants to the ground water.
• Organic wastewater pollutants are now detectable at low levels. The U.S. Geological Survey tested 139 streams for presence of 95 chemicals in 1999-2000 and found that 80 percent contained 1 or more of these chemicals, 50 percent contained 7 or more chemicals and 34 percent contained 10 or more chemicals.
In Washington, the Department of Ecology analyzed for 24 pharmaceuticals and personal care products in 2004. Sixteen compounds were detected at extremely low levels.
What to do if you don't have a nearby pharmacy that can take your drugs? For chemotherapy drugs, contact your prescribing medical office to see if they will accept the drug.
According to the stewardship council, for all other drugs, you should:
• Keep the medication in its original container.
• Modify the medications to discourage consumption. Add a small amount of water to pills or capsules to dissolve them.
• Seal and conceal. Tape the container lid shut with tape, place in a sealable bag, then place in a non-transparent container to ensure that the contents cannot be seen.
• Discard the container into the garbage away from kids or pets. Do not place in the recycling bin.