The do’s and don’ts of drug disposal

Stock photo of pills

Surely this is advice you’ve heard a lot.

Do not flush old or unwanted medication down the toilet. It can get into the water supply and harm plants and animals.

Also, don’t put the pills in the trash. It just adds to the dump.

But Corey Bates, head of pharmaceutical operations at OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony Health Center in Alton, Illinois, says there are bigger consequences you can’t just ignore.

“Several times we have read reports of people taking medicine from their parents’ pharmacy. They go to a party and everyone throws a bottle into a bowl. Throughout the party, everyone pulls out what they want to party.

“It’s one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever heard of in my life,” Bates says. “Just because it’s in your medicine cabinet doesn’t mean it’s an opioid or anything that’s going to make you feel better. It could stop your heart.

Bates and others passionate about reducing addiction remind you of the options for safely getting off drugs — each with their own do’s and don’ts.

OSF HealthCare Drop Boxes

Several OSF HealthCare facilities – including Alton Hospital where Bates works – have drop boxes at the entrance. Here’s what you need to know about this option.

  • The boxes are available 24/7 and a few steps away where you can temporarily park your car. They’re bolted to the concrete floor, which means they’re not going anywhere. Once items are placed inside, only authorized OSF mission partners (employees) like Bates can open them. This happens with at least two mission partners present, so there is no risk of someone taking one of the eliminated drugs.

“It’s kind of like a mailbox,” says Bates. “You open the lever. There is an open door. You deposit [the drugs] in the box. You push the lever. [The drugs] go into a secure box under the opening. No one can reach it. No one can recover [the drugs].”

  • There is no charge for depositing articles.
  • Both prescription and over-the-counter medications can be dropped off.
  • If possible, put the pills in a package, such as a plastic bag or the small bottle they came in.
  • Items accepted: pills, capsules, tablets, powders, sealed insulin vials, vitamins, ointments and patches.
  • On the prohibited list: needles or other sharp objects, inhalers, aerosols, thermometers, lotions, liquids (including IV bags and tubing), and hydrogen peroxide. The reasons are obvious, says Bates. Needles and hydrogen peroxide can injure a person emptying the box. Inhalers, aerosols and thermometers can explode when items are destroyed. Lotions and liquids can leave a stinky or sticky mess.
  • Pet medications can also be dropped off, as long as they meet the guidelines.
  • When it comes to illegal drugs, Bates recommends that the police be your first point of contact. But for others, you send the drop box, there is no privacy issue.

“If you want to take a black marker and mark your name, that’s fine. Or try peeling off the prescription tags, that’s fine too,” Bates says. “But nobody looks at any of the tags. We just close the top of the box, tape it down and contact our company.”

  • Once the drop box is full, OSF Mission Partners securely sends the contents to an outside company who destroys the drugs by setting them on fire.

Take note

It’s clear that the OSF drop boxes are having the intended effect.

Missi Herzberg of Rosewood Heights, Illinois, is a patient of OSF Moeller Cancer Center on the OSF Saint Anthony campus. As part of his communications class at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, Herzberg produces a public service announcement (PSA) about drop boxes at OSF Saint Anthony and the global importance of this issue. She recently spent time at the hospital filming people using the drop box with their permission.

“I really thought about what PSA would be beneficial. I didn’t want to do something that everyone else had done, like texting and driving,” says Herzberg. saw an expired medicine bottle, and that gave me the idea.

“It’s important for everyone to show people there’s a place to throw the drugs,” adds Herzberg.

Other options

Another option for drug disposal is national drug take-back days. The events are initiated by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and take place every few months, with the next taking place on October 29. The DEA partners with local groups, such as Crime Stoppers, to provide events to drop unwanted drugs. Depending on the event, other items may also be accepted. This could include old cell phones and financial documents that will be shredded to help prevent identity theft.

Your local pharmacy or public health department may offer drug take-back options. You can search for the AED website for these sites. Bates says pharmacies can sell hard plastic boxes that let you throw away the needles — an option that may not be available elsewhere.

“Some people even make their own [needle boxes]says Bates. “They find a hard plastic container like the one that holds your dishwasher pods. It’s very difficult. Nothing can get into it. Seal it with tape and you can safely dispose of it.

One big thing to know

The bottom line, says Bates: don’t cling to drugs that are no longer useful.

“Sometimes people don’t use all of their medicines because they want to have some on hand in case they get sick again. It’s not really a good plan.

“Most of the medications you receive are for a fixed period, especially for infections,” says Bates. “A doctor wants you to take it for seven days or 10 days. And you feel better on the fifth day and decide to hold a few back in case it comes back. If it comes back, you’ll probably take another seven to ten day cure.

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