A growing public health concern is the presence of potentially harmful pharmaceuticals in drinking water, due to improper disposal of waste prescription drugs. At least 20 states now have collection programs for unused medications. The greater use of such programs requires the reeducation of the community to raise awareness of the dangers and of the solutions to the problem of waste pharmaceuticals. The more convenient the options for disposal of most medications, the more likely they will be disposed of properly.
A growing public health concern is the presence of potentially harmful pharmaceuticals in drinking water, the result of improper disposal of waste prescription drugs. It is estimated that more than four billion prescriptions are written annually in the United States and up to 40% of drugs dispensed outside hospitals go unused, generating approximately 200 million pounds of pharmaceutical waste each year.1,2 They are the source of both safety and environmental problems:
In 2007, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued the first consumer guidance for the proper disposal of prescription drugs, encouraging disposal-by-mail options. These are designed to enable individual consumers and community-care facilities to dispose of unused medications, using containers of various sizes and returning packaging with prepaid postage to an authorized incineration facility. They can also be used in “take-back” programs, through which unused pharmaceuticals are returned to designated collection points, which then employ disposal by mail.
According to a 2010 Associated Press survey, at least 20 states now have collection programs for unused medications.5 These are among the most recent initiatives:
The greater use of such programs requires the reeducation of the community to raise awareness of the dangers and of the solutions to the problem of waste pharmaceuticals. The more convenient the options for disposal of most medications, the more likely they will be disposed of properly. As awareness grows about the environmental and health problems that improper disposal can cause, safe and practical disposal programs are likely to continue to expand.
1. Laura Landro, “Incentives Push More Doctors to E-Prescribe.
Wall Street Journal
, January 21, 2009.
2. Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza, Justin Pritchard, Associated Press. “Health facilities flush estimated 250M pounds of drugs a year.”
). Posted September 14, 2008.
3. Victoria Stagg Elliott, “FDA, CDC scrutiny follows surge in accidental opioid overdoses.”
American Medical News
. AMA website (
). Posted February 9, 2009.
4. Jeff Donn, “Feds mull regulating drugs in water.” Associated Press. December 22, 2009. (Article posted on Yahoo News; no longer available.)
5. Mike Stark, Associated Press. “More states took in expired meds in 2009.”
, January 19, 2010.
6. Burton J. Kunik, “Unused pharmaceuticals: A waste management time bomb.” MSW Management website (
Waste management time bomb
). Nov.-Dec. 2009.
7. Lawrence W. Falbe, Douglas Swill, Melissa A. January, Yesenia Villasenor-Rodriguez. “No more pills down the drain: Illinois bans disposal of unused pharmaceuticals in wastewater treatment systems.” Drinker Biddle website (
). August 2009.
8. SF 467 - Agriculture & Natural Resources Budget (Status: Signed/Line-Item Vetoed). (
9. “Iowa DNR Waste Management 2009 Legislative Update, SF 467: Ag and Natural Resource Budget Bill – Line item of $165,000 for a Pharmaceutical Collection and Disposal Pilot Program; source of funding is SWAP” (
Iowa legislative update
10. Susan Sharon, “DEP tests show prescription drugs leaching from landfills.” Maine Public Broadcasting Network website (
). Posted January 14, 2010.
Dr. Burton J. Kunik is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sharps Compliance Corp. (www.sharpsinc.com), a provider of cost-effective disposal solutions for medical and pharmaceutical waste generated outside the hospital setting.Dr. Kunik can be reached at 713-432-0300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.