New solutions for unused drugs

A dilute stream of prescription drugs flows through the nation’s rivers. To help cut that flow, representatives of the federal government and a pharmacists’ trade group want consumers to stop flushing most old drugs down the toilet.

FLUSH NOT. Pharmacists that display this logo will also dispense information on environmentally sound methods for disposing of unused medicines. USF&WS

Some 3 to 7 percent of dispensed medicines go unused, according to estimates by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in Washington, D.C. Pharmacy groups had generally recommended flushing away these leftovers, arguing that the practice prevents pets and curious children from retrieving drugs from wastebaskets.

However, research has begun linking waterborne pharmaceuticals—many of which move unchecked through sewage-treatment plants—with reproductive problems in fish and the development of drug-resistant germs that can be spread by waterfowl (SN: 6/5/99, p. 356:

On March 17, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) signed a formal agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the SMARxT Disposal campaign. APhA expects to roll out the program in its members’ pharmacies this summer.

The program will recommend that consumers dispose of unused drugs through their municipal hazardous-waste-collection programs, where they exist. Trash will be promoted as the next-best outlet.

Before disposing of the drugs, individuals will be asked to crush pills or dissolve them in water; add them to sawdust, kitty litter, or some other inedible material; and then seal the mix in a plastic bag. Certain potent narcotics will be exempt from this program. Federal officials still want these drugs flushed down the toilet.

“Ultimately, we’d like a national take-back program,” in which pharmacies would dispose of consumers’ unused medications, says Joe Starinchak of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Va.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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