The impacts of unused and expired prescription medications have created legal, health, societal, and environmental problems. A 2020 study revealed that 42% of customers surveyed store leftover prescription medications in their home.1 Additionally, a 2018 survey found that approximately 36% of patients prescribed opioids said they did not know they needed to dispose of their leftover medication.2
Why is proper medication disposal so important?
As dispensers of potentially dangerous drugs, pharmacies have a responsibility to know the environmental implications of any prescription or over-the-counter drugs flushed down the toilet or rinsed down the drain. Drugs placed in the trash or flushed into a septic system can seep into ground water, ultimately harming the wildlife in streams, rivers, and the ocean. A study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey found measurable amounts of one or more medications in 80% of the water samples drawn from a network of 139 streams in 30 states.3 Medicines entering the sewer system travel to waste water treatment plants for ‘cleaning’. However, waste water treatment facilities are only capable of removing roughly half the prescription drugs contained in sewage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studied the number and quantity of medications found in our drinking water. Post-treatment (effluent) drinking water samples collected included over 25 different drugs, including cardiovascular medications, hormone therapies, and opioids.4
If the environmental impact of improperly disposed of medications wasn’t stark enough, the health, societal, and legal impacts of prescription drug misuse is overwhelming, immediate, and urgent. Today, millions of unused doses of prescription medications are sitting in households across the nation. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the non-medical use of prescription drugs ranks second only to marijuana as the most common form of drug abuse in America.
18 million Americans have misused prescription opioids, depressants, or stimulants at least once in the past year.5
62% of college students have reported knowing a peer who has misused at least one prescription drug.
70% of misused prescription pain relievers are obtained from family or friends…often without knowledge or permission.6
So, what are you supposed to do with your left-over prescription medications?
The proper disposal of unused drugs saves lives and protects the environment. The next step is to dispose of them safely. Medication take-back programs are the best way to dispose of old drugs. On October 23rd, the DEA is holding its National Prescription Drug Take Back. Pharmacies, retailers, local law enforcement agencies, and fire departments across the country will be available to collect your unused medications. Find a location near you by going to this link. Additionally, pharmacies are adding in-store drug take back receptacles and/or offering medication disposal products that render the medication inert and safe for disposal in the trash. These last two solutions are available throughout the year.
Are the current prescription drug disposal solutions working?
While the presence of national and local drug disposal programs is growing, awareness and use of them is not. A study conducted just this year cited that nearly 30% of consumers said they did not know how to safely dispose of opioid pain killers and only 22% said that their pharmacist or healthcare provider had discussed safe storage or disposal of opioids with them2. Unfortunately, the FDA-recommended disposal methods are used by less than 10% of patients.7
As the most accessible health care provider, community pharmacists also serve a role as stewards of community health. Why not incorporate targeted, timely, and automated outbound notifications to your drug disposal strategy? MarkeTouch can assist pharmacies with reaching and engaging patients regarding the disposal options offered by their pharmacy using SMS/texts, voice, and push notifications.
This patent-pending8 service, increases patient awareness to your drug disposal practices and services, provides you an additional tool in your drug diversion toolkit in the fight against prescription drug misuse, and can bolster your organization’s sustainability efforts. To learn more about how to incorporate these invaluable notifications, please call or email me.
Until next time, take care.
Matt Feltman, RPh
1 Leftover drug disposal: Customer behavior, pharmacist recommendations, and obstacles to drug take-back box implementation, Waste Management, Volume 118, 2020.