Unused pills in medicine bottles sit on cabinet shelves in homes, sometimes for years.
Or maybe they’re flushed down the toilet.
Experts say that for the most part, both those ways of handling medicine are wrong.
The first, simply keeping it around, isn’t recommended because of the risk of misuse or abuse of the medicine.
The second, sending it down the toilet, may be impacting drinking water supplies.
“More than 70 percent of people who abuse prescription drugs get them from friends and family — often from the home medicine cabinet,” according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
On the other hand “trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and other personal care products are being detected in our nation’s water and drinking water systems,” according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
Currently, the federal Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t set maximum contaminant levels for such substances in drinking water, according to DEQ’s website, http://www.deq.louisiana.gov.
In Baton Rouge, people have some options for safe disposal of prescription medicine.
Nine Walgreens, three Rite-Aids, six CVS pharmacies and one Winn-Dixie outlet are currently offering disposal systems for leftover medicine, as is the locally owned Bocage Pharmacy Centre.
Certain unused prescription medicine can also be brought to the St. Vincent de Paul Community Pharmacy, 1647 Convention St., for the needy.
The local retail pharmacies that participate in a medicine-disposal program have partnered with a company called Sharps Compliance.
The company takes in unused medicine from pharmacies or individuals all over the country, by mail, and, under the supervision of law enforcement, incinerates it at its plant in Carthage, Texas.
Sharps Compliance started up 18 years ago disposing of used health-care items, primarily needles for physicians and dentists, said Claude Dance, company senior vice president.
At some point, it added disposal services for items used at home, including needles and intravenous tubing, he said.
People eventually began asking the company for help with unused prescription medicine, Dance said.
“People would bring it back to the pharmacy, wanting to get it out of harm’s way” and not knowing what they were supposed to do with it, Dance said.
Sharps Compliance designed its Safe Medication Disposal Program system, going through the proper regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service.
At participating pharmacies, special envelopes can be purchased for $2.99 to $3.99, to mail leftover medicine directly back to Sharps Compliance or medicine can be dropped off to be put in the pharmacy’s self-sealing box that’s sent in to the disposal program.
The program began rolling out in Walgreens pharmacies in the fall of 2010 and is now also offered at other pharmacies.
“Ninety-two percent of the population in the U.S. is within five miles of a pharmacy that participates,” said Dance.
“I can’t tell you how many people ask me what to do with their (unused) medicines,” said Marla Gibbens, pharmacist and owner of the Bocage Pharmacy Centre in Towne Centre.
Her pharmacy keeps on hand a large self-sealing box that can be shipped off for disposal of the leftover medicine that customers bring by.
“Safe disposal of medicine is so necessary,” Gibbens said.
The St. Vincent de Paul Community Pharmacy accepts unused medicine, with the exception of controlled substances such as narcotics, said Michael Acaldo, president and chief executive officer of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge.
The pharmacy doesn’t dispense donated medicine that has expired, he said.
However, if the medicine has just recently expired and is determined to be safe by the pharmacist, it’s sent to Third World countries where it’s desperately needed, he said.
The St. Vincent de Paul Community Pharmacy is one of “last resort,” providing life-saving medicines for those who are legitimately in need, Acaldo said.
“Our goal is to save as many lives as we can,” he said.
The pharmacy fills about 615 prescriptions a week, he said.
Ninety percent of the medicine the pharmacy provides comes from donations, Acaldo said, much of it from nursing homes and pharmaceutical companies or in the form of samples from doctors’ offices.
Individuals, of course, can also donate.
Since pharmaceuticals aren’t regulated contaminants under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals doesn’t currently monitor drinking water in the state, said Ken Pastorick, public information officer for the department.
“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has, however, listed some pharmaceuticals as candidates for potential regulation … and will require some water systems in Louisiana (and others throughout the country) to monitor for these…” in the future, Pastorick wrote in an email.
That monitoring is expected to take place beginning January 2013, he wrote.
Regulating the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals will continue to be a challenge.
According to the state Department of Environmental Quality, pharmaceuticals also end up in the environment through human or animal waste and from runoff from animal feeding operations.
Drug disposal methods
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends the following methods for properly disposing of unused medicine:
• Follow any specific instructions on the drug label or patient information that accompanies the medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless the information specifically says to do so.
• Take advantage of community drug take-back programs.
• If no instructions are given on the label and there’s no take-back program in the area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. Put them in a sealable bag, empty can or other container to stop the medicine from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
• Scratch out identifying information on the label.
• Drugs such as narcotic pain relievers and other controlled substances carry instructions for flushing to reduce the danger of unintentional use or overdose and illegal abuse.