Is It Safe to Flush Unused Medications?
Flushing unused prescription drugs down the sink or toilet is one of the three medical disposal methods recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (see our previous post). While safe when used as prescribed, many prescription drugs can be harmful and even fatal – especially to children and pets -- when ingested by someone for whom the medicine was not prescribed. Certain potentially dangerous medications are even accompanied by instructions to flush unused portions to immediately remove possible risk of unintentional poisoning.
When a take-back drug disposal program is not available, the Food and Drug Administration website advises, “flushing these medicines down the sink or toilet is currently the best way to immediately and permanently remove the risk of harm from the home.”
But does flushing drugs harm the environment and eventually come back to haunt us? Over the past few years, numerous studies have found traces of prescription drugs, particularly antibiotics, hormones and antidepressants, in municipal water supplies. How do they get there? When drugs are flushed down the toilet, they enter municipal sewage systems. According to the Food & Drug Administration, most of the drugs found in our drinking water enter the sanitary system through natural body elimination (urine and feces); not from flushing unused drugs. After being treated and filtered to remove contaminants, the cleansed by-product is released into local streams, rivers or lakes that are the source for our drinking water.
Despite the numerous contaminant-removing processes to which our water is subjected, trace amounts of some common prescription drugs remain in the water supply. According to the Food & Drug Administration, these trace amounts do not pose a hazard to human health. Many municipalities have begun medication take-back programs to minimize possible drinking water contamination, and consumers are urged to use these programs whenever possible.