Responsible Disposal of Unused Medications

by Catherine Haug, April 14, 2011

Do you have unused or outdated medications (prescriptions, OTC medications and supplements) that you want to dispose of?

Last year we had a once-a-year opportunity to hand these in for safe disposal during Operation Medicine Cabinet 2010, and will have another opportunity this spring (see below for dates & locations). Also below are some guidelines for responsible disposal from the brochure: Pharmaceutical Waste: Disposing of Unwanted Medications, by Waste Not Project in the Flathead Valley (1).

Operation Medicine Cabinet

In 2011, this annual program for safe disposal of unwanted pharmaceuticals will be (2):

When: May 21st
Time: 9am-2pm
Where: Flathead County Health Dept & North Valley Hospital- Whitefish
(more locations may be announced)

Why is this important?

To protect our water quality (1). Measurable amounts of drugs end up in down-stream drinking water; when you drink the water, you drink the drugs. Tests to measure the level of drugs in our groundwater are currently underway. Groundwater can be contaminated by:

  • presence of medicines and their metabolites in our bodily excretions, and
  • disposal of waste medicines to sewers or trash.

Do you want hormones or opiates in your drinking water?

Our waste-water plants and septic systems are NOT equipped to break down these contaminants into less toxic substances.

To protect our children and families by reducing access to prescription drugs (1). In Montana, prescription drug abuse and misuse is a significant public health problem that has become a serious public safety concern. Nationally, Montana ranks third in teen misuse of prescription drugs, according to our A.G. Steve Bullock.

The consequences of this abuse are serious. “More Montanans die of prescription drug overdoses than any other kind, including illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine.” (quote from the Missoulian Newspaper’s series on drug abuse). In 2009, our state recorded 141 deaths directly related to prescription abuse. That’s one death every 2.5 days. Compare this to only 8 deaths in Montana due to Meth abuse in 2010 (1).

Disposal Tips (1):

  • Do NOT flush medicines down the toilet or drain.
  • The best choice is to use community drug take-back programs for proper disposal. For 2011, Operation Medicine Cabinet will be in May (see above).

If a take-back location is not available to you, or if you miss the dates, follow these steps:

  1. Dump medicines out of their container into a re-sealable bag.
  2. Pour enough water into bag to let medicines dissolve.
  3. Add an undesirable, absorbent such as kitty litter, coffee grounds or sawdust, and mix together.
  4. Seal bag and place in a garbage container out of reach of children, pets. The garbage container should be one that someone would not have access to easily look through your trash.

For more information, visit Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs): Frequent Questions: from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency); (


  1. Pharmaceutical Waste: Disposing of Unwanted Medications, by Waste Not Project in the Flathead Valley (printable pdf copy of brochure available at Pharmaceutical Waste brochure)
  3. Pharmaceuticals in the Environment (

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