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Don't flush it

Disposing of unwanted pills and medications a challenge

August 27, 2010
By JOHANNA BOYLE Journal Ishpeming Bureau

MARQUETTE - For years one of the easiest and simplest ways to dispose of unwanted pharmaceutical products like pills and medications was to simply flush them down the toilet.

While simple for people, that "solution" has led to those medications ending up back in the environment and our water supply.

"All those medications, including personal care products, anything that goes down the drain, most of that is not filtered out through wastewater treatment plants," said Carl Lindquist of the Superior Watershed Partnership.

Article Photos

A pharmacist tosses into a barrel over-the-counter drugs that were collected during a 2007 Pharmaceutical Clean Sweep at St. John the Evangelist Church in Ishpeming. Although flushing drugs down the toilet may be the most convenient method of disposal, that can lead to the medications ending up in the water supply, experts say. (Journal file photo by Andy Nelson-Zaleski)

The U.S. Geological Survey has found pharmaceutical and personal care contaminants in 80 percent of the streams it sampled in 30 states. Although the concentrations are low, many of the contaminants are regularly introduced into the environment and can have an impact on fish and other aquatic life.

So what can be done to dispose of unwanted medications that will keep them out of the environment and out of the hands of those who might want to illegally use those drugs?

In 2007, the SWP held a collection of unwanted pharmaceuticals that netted more than 2,000 pounds of pills and medications in one day, Lindquist said. Collections such as those, however, don't occur often.

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"We had one of the better collections in the county, but it's based on available funding," Lindquist said.

Since many medications are also controlled substances, extra security has to be taken during collections to ensure the pills are not misused or mishandled.

Because of that extra cost, it is difficult for pharmacies to take on such collections on their own, leaving people hoping to properly dispose of their medications with fewer alternatives.

The non-profit Great Lakes Clean Water Organization began a program in 2009 called Yellow Jug Old Drugs, which is available at 92 pharmacies downstate that allows people to turn in their unwanted drugs. That program will be available statewide by the end of this year.

Until that program or another like it arrives, however, what is the best way to get rid of medications? The trash.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment recommends keeping the medications in their original containers and scratching out the personal information on the label. Adding some water to solid medications to allow them to partially dissolve or mixing liquid medications with flour, salt or strong-flavored spice discourages humans and animals from ingesting them.

The containers should be sealed with duct tape to prevent leaks and then double bagged or wrapped in an empty container, also taped shut, to prevent identification that they contain drugs.

"It's not the ideal solution, but it's much better than putting it down the toilet," Lindquist said.

Pharmacists also recognize the issues posed by unwanted medications.

"It's a problem all over," said Dave Cantana, former owner of Campus Pharmacy who is now retired.

As a start, Cantana is working with the majority of the county's pharmacies to collect and properly dispose of used syringes and needles and is working toward bringing a drug disposal program to the county.

"They bring (syringes and needles) back in sharps containers where the pharmacies collect them. When they get a full box, I'll come and pick them up," he said.

Cantana, working with Marquette County Landfill Director Rick Aho, then brings the items to the landfill and disposed of properly so they don't present a danger to sanitation workers.

"If people don't bring them back, they put them in their garbage bags," Cantana said. "Someone's going to get stuck or they're going to go into the environment.

"At least this way we're halfway there."

Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her e-mail address is



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