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The Garbage Maven: How to dispose of old medication?

February 23, 2012 |  9:03 am

PillsLike a lot of Americans, I have a cupboard that has accumulated bottles of medicine so old, I can’t even remember what brought me to the doctor to get them. There are expired antibiotics, nasal sprays, cough suppressants — all of which I’d like to dump as responsibly as possible. The question is: How?

California hospitals generate almost 30 million pounds of pharmaceutical and contaminated packaging waste, according to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Nationally, 7.8 billion needles are discarded outside of healthcare settings each year, the Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal has said. And more than 250 million pounds of unused, dispensed medications are generated annually, according to Sharps Compliance, which runs a take-back program.

Insulin needles and drugs of so many different types have enormous implications not only for the environment but for human and animal health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is detecting prescription and over-the-counter drugs at “very low” but increasing levels in drinking water, according to its website. In 2009, the EPA added the antibiotic erythromycin and nine hormones to its Contaminant Candidate List, which identifies substances that might require future regulation.

Sanitation workers are also at increased risk of infection from improperly disposed of needles.

Drinking water isn’t the only concern. Drug abuse is too. In 2010, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 7 million Americans ages 12 and older used prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs for non-medical purposes. Of the individuals who used pain relievers in a nonmedical manner, 55% got them from a friend or relative.

On April 28, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will run a Drug Take Back Day. Since September 2010, it has collected almost 1 million pounds of drugs at three events in which drugs are taken back from the public and then incinerated. The DEA is devising a national standard for unused drug collection to minimize the risk of medications being diverted for illicit purposes.

One possible solution is dropping unused medications at pharmacies, but according to DEA spokesman Rusty Payne, such a program could make pharmacies an even greater target for armed robbery. Armed robberies of pharmacies have already risen from 385 in 2006 to 698 in 2010.

Until a federal drug disposal policy is in place, the DEA recommends mixing unused drugs with used coffee grounds, bacon grease or kitty litter and throwing them in the trash. But some environmental groups contend that the drugs will still leach into water supplies.

Needles The Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation collects 1,000 pounds of pharmaceutical waste annually through its household hazardous waste collection sites, called SAFE centers. The bureau recommends disposing unused medications at these centers, although Ritalin and painkillers such as oxycontin, codeine and valium are not accepted. L.A. recommends the kitty litter or coffee ground treatment as a second option and strongly discourages flushing, because waste-water treatment plants aren’t equipped to remove pharmaceutical contaminants entirely.

Since September 2008, it is illegal for California residents to dispose of needles, syringes, lancets and other “sharps” in household trash or recycling bins. The sharps are supposed to be taken to a collection center in an approved container. The city of Los Angeles accepts sharps at its six SAFE centers and 25 Department of Recreation and Parks’ senior citizen centers.

Other disposal options include drop boxes and fee-based mail-back programs. Many doctor offices, hospitals, pharmacies and fire stations have drop boxes to collect sharps. Mail-back programs include the one run by Houston-based Sharps Compliance, which sells several types and sizes of postage-paid containers that can be returned to the company for incineration and electricity generation without having to leave the house or travel to the post office.


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Can I recycle fast food cups? Children's car seats? Chopsticks?

-- Susan Carpenter

The Garbage Maven is our occasional series on household trash and recycling. Comments: susan.carpenter@latimes.com.

Photos, from top: Ken Kwok / Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times