Got Drugs ... You Want to Dispose of Safely?

By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor

Experts agree that the most dangerous place for those leftover prescription drugs is in your medicine cabinet.

“Seventy percent of people who misuse prescription drugs get them from a family member or a friend, a lot of times without that person knowing it,” said Peter Asen, director of the Healthy Communities Office for the city of Providence. “Some drugs are more dangerous than others; some more likely to be abused, but the most important message is not to leave them sitting in the medicine cabinet.”

On Sept. 27, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is sponsoring Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which allows for the collection of unused and expired medications, free and anonymously, at drop-off points throughout the nation.

In Rhode Island, some 40 public and community agencies and pharmacies have registered as collection sites, according to John Kleczkowski, resident agent for all state DEA activity.

For a complete list of collection sites in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, click here.

The semi-annual event is just one attempt to stanch what the DEA considers a prescription drug abuse epidemic of medications taken accidentally, stolen, misused or abused, as well as the environmental threat posed by improper disposal.

“Everyone recognizes there’s a problem with pharmaceuticals out there,” Kleczkowski said. The challenge is to educate the public to keep medicines in a secure location when using them and dispose of unused pills as quickly and safely as possible, he added.

Many municipalities already have secure drop boxes — some accessible 24/7 — for depositing medicines, most often at police departments and public-safety complexes. The goal is to offer options in convenient locations and make the process as simple as possible, according to Asen.

New federal regulations set to take affect next month will go a long way to opening a closed loop that closely monitored supply and sale of drugs but lacked mechanisms for return. Beginning Oct. 9, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, hospitals and clinics can accept unused and expired medications.

Kleczkowski anticipates the rollout will be gradual, as sites are brought up to speed on processing procedures and federal guidelines. Participation is voluntary, but officials have already seen an enthusiastic response from pharmacies and medical establishments.

For the time being, leaving unused medications with police departments or in drop boxes means they’re more likely to be destroyed in incinerators equipped to handle such toxic waste.

According to the DisposeMyMeds.org, an online resource for locating medication disposal programs, nearly 4 billion prescriptions are filled in the United States annually, with an estimated one-third going unused. That leaves as much as 200 million pounds of pharmaceuticals that could adversely affect the environment.

Traces of chemicals in groundwater, streams, lakes and reservoirs have already been linked to adverse impacts on aquatic life. Proper disposal helps keep toxic substances from leaching into landfills and filtering into sewerage treatment plants, said Mark Dennen of the Office of Waste Management for the Rhode Island Department of Energy Management.

“We get calls every day. People want to do what’s right,” he said. “If we make it easier for homeowners to safely get rid of medications, it will go a long way to keeping them out of the waste stream.”

Lacking other alternatives, unused medications can be placed in the trash with proper preparation:

Remove pills from drug bottles. Crush them and mix them with used coffee grounds or cat litter. Bag the mix in double sealable plastic bags or a disposable sealed container. Remove labels from empty pill bottles or black out information and prescription numbers with a waterproof marker.