After a loss, family is often tasked with the responsibility of handling the financial and legal matters associated with administering the estate of the deceased. While this in and of itself can be stressful and overwhelming, perhaps the more emotionally-draining ritual is sorting through personal belongings such as clothing, jewelry, and photos of a loved one.
One often overlooked personal item that must be removed when cleaning out after someone has died, are unused prescriptions and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
What do you do with these now unneeded, but potentially dangerous, medications when your loved one is gone? How do you make sure they are safely disposed of and do not fall into the wrong hands?
Options for Safe Medication Disposal
Depending on the medications, their expiration dates, and where you live, you have a couple of options on how to safely dispose of unwanted or expired medicines that may have belonged to someone who has now passed away.
Here are the generally recommended ways to properly discard prescription and OTC medications:
1. Drug Take Back Programs: According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the preferred method to safely dispose of unwanted or expired medications is through medicine take back options.
One such take back program is the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, which is sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in many communities throughout the country. This program enables the public to bring unused medications anonymously to specific locations where the drugs will be properly disposed of at regulated incinerators. Sometimes, local law enforcement or waste agencies will designate a specific day that offer local drop off sites (limited to residents) as well.
Another take back option is the use of authorized collection sites such as drug drop boxes at local police stations, retail pharmacies, clinics, or hospitals.
You can find an authorized local drug collection site near you on by:
- visiting the DEA website
- calling the DEA Diversion Control Division Registration Call Center at 1-800-882-9539
- visiting Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) website
- checking with your pharmacist. In addition to in-store disposal sites, some pharmacies may also offer a drug mail-back program where you can purchase a medicine disposal envelope.
Before bringing medications to a take back drop off site, you should make sure to remove all personal information from medicine bottles and packaging.
2. Flushing: In a few, select cases and for safety reasons, flushing unwanted medications may be a viable option for disposal. However, it is generally not recommended (for example, Connecticut urges consumers not to flush medications down the toilet or sink), and in some places flushing is prohibited, as it can lead to medications getting into local water systems, potentially contaminating rivers, lakes or drinking water.
Flushing medications (in a toilet or sink) should only be done if:
- the medication label instructs as such and a drug take back is not readily available; and
- the medication is included on the FDA’s “flush list”
3. Trash Disposal: If the medication does not specifically instruct you to immediately flush or have some other specific disposal instructions (or is not on the “flush list”) you may throw away medication in the household trash.
However, do not just throw pills in the trash as is; rather, you should follow these guidelines offered by the Connecticut DCP for safe medication disposal:
- Keep the medication in its original container. Use a permanent marker or duck tape to cross out your personal information, or remove the label.
- Make medication less appealing. Mix your drugs (liquid or pills) with hot water to dissolve them. Add an undesirable substance, such as salt, ashes, saw dust, used coffee grounds or kitty litter. (Do not crush tablets or capsules.)
- Contain and seal. Place it inside a container such as an empty yogurt or margarine tub to ensure that the contents cannot be seen and tape it shut.
- Throw out the container in your trash can. Do not put the container in your recycling bin.
Sorting through medications after a loved one has passed away may seem like the last thing you want to deal with during such a trying time. But it’s essential and important to put at the top of your to-do list.
Disposing of unused and/or expired prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs right away and properly can limit safety hazards like accidental exposure, identity theft and misuse and abuse of medications.
If you have questions about how, where and which medications and certain medical supplies can be properly disposed of, speak to your local pharmacist, or reach out the Connecticut DCP or DEA for help.