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Don't Flush Medicines

Flushing Medicines Doesn’t Help a Sick River

When drugs are flushed, they may not be broken down by the sewage treatment facilities and septic tank systems and can enter the soil, surface water and groundwater. Sewage systems are not equipped for drug removal. Currently, there are no municipal sewage treatment plants that are engineered specifically for drug removeal or for other unregulated contaminants.

Effective removal of pharmaceuticals from treatment plants varies based on the type of chemical and on the individual sewage treatment facility.  Research studies have shown that exposure to drugs found in waterways is having a serious, negative impact on fish and other aquatic life. 

Effects on aquatic life are a major concern. Exposure risks for aquatic organisms are much larger than those for humans. Aquatic organisms have:

  • continual exposures
  • multi-generational exposures
  • exposure to higher concentrations of drugs in untreated water
  • possible low dose effects

What You Can Do

Dispose of medicine and drugs properly, following the steps identified in the resources below.

Guidelines for Drug Disposal

FDA worked with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop the first consumer guidance for proper disposal of prescription drugs. Issued by ONDCP in February 2007 and updated in October 2009, the federal guidelines are summarized here:

  • Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information that accompanies the medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
  • Take advantage of community drug take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county government's household trash and recycling service (see blue pages in phone book) to see if a take-back program is available in your community. The Drug Enforcement Administration, working with state and local law enforcement agencies, is sponsoring National Prescription Drug Take Back Days throughout the United States.
  • If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter — to make the medication less appealing and unrecognizable — then put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.

FDA's Deputy Director of the Office of Compliance Ilisa Bernstein, Pharm.D., J.D., offers some additional tips:

  • Before throwing out a medicine container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.
  • Do not give medications to friends. Doctors prescribe drugs based on a person's specific symptoms and medical history. A drug that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.
  • When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.

The same disposal methods for prescription drugs could apply to over-the-counter drugs as well.