Dear Umbra,

I work with a number of older women who try to be environmentally conscientious. When it comes to discarding outdated medications though, there seems to be conflicting advice. Medical doctors tell me that all such medicines should be flushed down the toilet. Water resource people say, don’t flush, because all those discarded medicines are seeping into groundwater. Sigh. What are we to do?

Jonell Cadman

Dearest Jonell,

The good news is that you can probably pawn this problem off on someone else: your friendly neighborhood pharmacist. It’s likely one in your area will accept the drugs, and in turn pawn them off on the original distributor. If the distributor is upstanding, the medicine will wind up in a landfill in proper containers, or incinerated at wildly high temperatures. (Not quite as hot as cullet, but almost.) I don’t mean to give you ideas here: Please dissuade your elderly associates from burning their medicines at home. Tempting as it may be, they’ll never get the pyre hot enough and might expose themselves to harmful vapors.

To flush or not to flush?

If you still want to dispose of medicines yourself, my highly connected hazardous waste informant recommends putting the (closed) original container of drugs inside a double layer of ziplock bags, and then into the trash. Most modern U.S. landfills have good containment systems, so a little jar of tablets swaddled in this fashion is unlikely to pollute groundwater.

Still, water pollution is a concern, so you are right not to flush drugs down the toilet. Residues from home pharmaceuticals and “personal care products” like sunscreen have been found in waterways, and just as with THMs, researchers are unsure of the environmental and human health implications. Scientists are worried about harming little bugs and, subsequently, the rest of the food chain; industry folks say the quantities in question are minuscule. The bugs are staying up late at night and getting lots of work done.

Disturbingly, the main way these medicines are getting into groundwater is through use, not leftovers. What I’m trying to say is, it’s in our poop! If pharmaceuticals are not fully absorbed by the body, they’ll end up in the toilet and may not be destroyed by the sewage treatment process. Therefore, an important companion to responsible waste disposal is using the fewest medicines necessary for your health.

In good health,
Umbra