Just Throw Out Your Unwanted Meds? Sea Grant Programs Weigh In
Return Unwanted Medicines - News
Buffalo, NY, June 8, 2012 - Want to get rid of that unwanted medicine? A recent paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology indicates that you do not need to wait for a collection event, encouraging individuals to "just throw them out," (see related article in "The Scientist," pdf). Sea Grant programs throughout the Great Lakes region, though, have been working on an educational campaign for several years that says otherwise.

"There is no doubt in any of our minds that incineration is indeed the best method for disposing of unwanted medicines," says Helen Domske, a Senior Coastal Education Specialist with New York Sea Grant. "The members of our Great Lakes Sea Grant Network working group educate people about proper disposal—ideally, that means bringing their unwanted medicine to a collection event or program where the medications are later subject to high-heat incineration at a regulated facility. Medications should not be flushed down the drain and preferably should not be thrown in the trash. "

In late April, NYSG encouraged people to participate in the 4th annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day to keep drugs out of New York's waterways (click here for related news item). And, on June 7-8, The Great Lakes Pharmaceutical Stewardship Summit will be held in Chicago to build a strategy for expanding pharmaceutical collection in the Great Lakes region. Hosted by the Product Stewardship Institute and University of Wisconsin Extension as part of the Great Lakes Pharmaceutical Initiative. The summit is seen as a way to reduce pharmaceutical pollution and prescription drug abuse. Sea Grant staff will be providing updates on the Great Lakes Network's related educational campaign at this event.

As for the newly published journal article, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant's Pollution Prevention Program Specialist, Laura Kammin, reminds people to consider the research funding source. The article was written by researchers supported by the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute which received funding from Merck & Co, Inc.

"The researchers recommended trash disposal as the best disposal method", said Kammin, "based on their results which indicated that take-back programs would increase emissions related to driving to the take-back location, increase cost and inconvenience and encourage storage of drugs in the home. "

"It's important to realize, though, that many of the take-back programs are available 24/7, same as a trash can," she continued. "And most people are likely to transport their unwanted medications to a take-back program as they run other errands, rather than making a special trip just for that purpose."

The Sea Grant working group recognizes that not everyone has access to a medicine collection program yet. That is why they also provide tips for how to dispose of medications in the trash.  However, they consider trash disposal only an interim solution.  

Pharmaceuticals that are flushed down the toilet end up at wastewater treatment plants or septic systems, neither of which are designed to remove pharmaceuticals. Throwing medicine in the trash only delays the pharmaceutical chemicals from reaching groundwater or rivers and lakes.  

“Studies have found small amounts of discarded drugs in leachate water from landfills,” says Anna McCartney, Communication and Education Specialist at Pennsylvania Sea Grant. “The pharmaceuticals detected in the samples were relatively consistent and included antibiotics, steroids, antidepressants as well as medications for heart conditions, asthma and high blood pressure and a variety of pain medications. The detected concentrations, although seemingly low, can translate to the potential discharge of hundreds of pounds of pharmaceuticals per year considering that landfills typically discharge millions of gallons of leachate annually. “

 The leachate is typically piped or trucked to municipal wastewater treatment plants before it is discharged into nearby rivers and lakes—water that is used for both waste disposal and drinking water supplies.

Kammin adds that she hopes the journal article "doesn't discourage people from using or starting take-back programs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still considers high-heat incineration at a regulated facility to be the best disposal option. The goal is to protect the health of people and the environment."

Since 2010, Sea Grant programs in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Illinois-Indiana have been educating people about how to properly use, store and dispose of pharmaceuticals and personal care products. In Fall 2010, these Great Lakes Sea Grant programs began distributing a 12-page educational publication, "Dose of Reality: Remedies to keep everyday chemicals out of waterways" (pdf).

For more, check out NYSG's unwanted medicines resources or Pennsylvania Sea Grant’s "Dose of Reality" resources. You can also visit unwantedmeds.org for a copy of the Disposal of Unwanted Medicine Toolkit or contact Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant's Laura Kammin for more information on pharmaceutical waste reduction and medicine collection programs. In New York, the contact is New York Sea Grant's Coastal Education Specialist Helen Domske.

New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York, is one of 32 university-based programs under the National Sea Grant College Program (NSGCP) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NSGCP engages this network of the nation’s top universities in conducting scientific research, education, training and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources. Through its statewide network of integrated services, NYSG has been promoting coastal vitality, environmental sustainability, and citizen awareness about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources since 1971.


Pill Bottle Phil - played wonderfully by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant's Associate Director for Education, Robin Graff Goettel - spreads the word about sensible disposal of your unwanted medicines. Learn more on this Great Lakes Sea Grant Network initiative at www.unwantedmeds.org or locally via New York Sea Grant at www.nyseagrant.org/unwantedmeds.

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