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Disposing of Unused Prescription Medications

Larry Hickman, RPh

Pharmacist Larry Hickman, the pharmacy manager for Home Care Pharmacy in Williamsport, fields countless questions from patients. And when it comes to prescription medications, the answers are at his fingertips—except perhaps for one question. What’s the best way to get rid of my old and unused medications?

That question is more challenging than you might imagine. In the not-too-distant past, government agencies advised consumers to flush their leftover pills. That’s no longer an accepted option for most medications because of the hazards they pose to our water supplies. And Hickman knows that the way we choose to dispose of unused medications can affect our rivers and lakes, wildlife, and perhaps even human life.

In fact, Hickman regularly talks with Edward Enamite, a fish biologist retired from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Enamite has seen signs of the effects of chemical pollution on wildlife firsthand. He shared a story about one fishing expedition that took place about five years ago, back when these effects first started to appear. Fishing in the Potomac near Dargan, Maryland, he caught ten male bass and sent them all out for testing. All ten had eggs in their testes. Intersex fish like these (fish with both male and female sex organs) have been linked to endocrine disrupters, chemicals that affect hormones.

Enamite added that these same chemicals have the potential to weaken the immune systems of aquatic animals, making them vulnerable to common bacteria and viruses. “We’re just starting to realize the effects that the chemicals and drugs are having on aquatic animals,” he explained. Although the effects of these chemicals on humans have not yet been determined, experts agree that it’s best to keep medications and other chemicals out of our water sources as much as possible.

Thanks to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, now Hickman has the perfect answer for patients who ask him how to dispose of their leftover medications. The Sheriff’s Office has started holding turn-in events where consumers can simply hand in their old or unused medications for incineration in a specially designed, professional incinerator. According to Corporal Jim Holsinger with the Sheriff’s Office, environmental contamination is only part of the reason for holding turn-in events. Across the country, unused medications have made it into the hands of children or been diverted for illegal use. 

In addition, there are health risks associated with storing medications that are not part of a current regimen: the medication may have lost its effectiveness, it might be taken by mistake by the patient or a family member, it could interact with a more recently prescribed medication, or it may be stolen or abused.

If you are unable to make it to a turn-in event, for optimal health and safety follow these recommendations* for safe medication disposal.

Check the information that came with your medication for any specific disposal instructions. If disposal instructions are not included, follow four easy steps:

  1. Pour the medication into a sealable plastic bag. If the medication is solid, crush it or add water to dissolve it.
  2. Add kitty litter, sawdust, or coffee grounds to the plastic bag. This step makes the medication less appealing to pets and small children.
  3. Seal the plastic bag and dispose of it in the trash.
  4. Remove the prescription label or other personal information from the medication container. Destroy the information, and dispose of the container in the trash or recycling.

If you have any questions, consult your pharmacist.

* Guidelines from SmaRxt Disposal, a campaign sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Pharmacists Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. For more information, visit


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