Whether they’re chemotherapy drugs (such as vismodegib), high-potency pain relievers (considered controlled substances), or drugs that target specific defects on cancer cells (vemurafenib), it’s important to know how to properly dispose of these medicines.
“The dangers of having unused or expired medications lying around the house are well-documented,” says Lori Bertrand, retail pharmacy manager at MD Anderson. “Every day, parents head to the emergency room or contact poison control centers because their children have accidentally ingested medications intended for someone else.”
Here’s what you should know about disposing of your unused or expired medications.
How to find an authorized collection location
The first step in disposing of unused prescriptions is to identify an authorized collection location in your area. You can find one using this search tool on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) website or by searching for “authorized takeback locations” online.
The DEA also sponsors a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day event twice a year, usually on Saturdays in April and October. During these events, you can drop off your unused and expired medications at police stations, fire stations and other local civic centers designated as official drop-off sites.
Any type of unused or expired medication — including over-the-counter drugs such as cough syrup or antihistamines, and even veterinary medicines — can be dropped off on these days for proper disposal by law-enforcement personnel.
Bring prescriptions back to MD Anderson
Medications issued by our pharmacies may also be returned to MD Anderson year-round. Any MD Anderson outpatient pharmacy location can handle these returns, but patients and caregivers should plan to stay long enough for a pharmacy staff member to sort through the medications before leaving.
“Our pharmacies do accept some medications, but we can’t keep any controlled substances,” says Pharmacy resident Devlin Smith. “So patients and caregivers will need to spend a few minutes here. That way, we can look through their medicines and return any we can’t accept.”
MD Anderson became an authorized collection location in February 2019, so patients and other visitors may discard some of the controlled substances our pharmacists can't accept (Schedule II-IV, such as hydrocodone, morphine and tramadol) in one of the two green take-back bins on campus. These bins are located outside the MD Anderson pharmacies in the Main Building (Floor 2, near Elevator C) and in Mays Clinic (Floor 2, near The Tree Sculpture).
How to dispose of medicines at home
In cases where no authorized collection location is nearby, or a “take-back day” is still months away, you can also safely dispose of unused and expired medications at home.
Most medications can be sealed in a plastic bag with something unpalatable — such as used cat litter, sawdust or old coffee grounds — and discarded in the regular household trash. But some prescriptions, such as high-dose pain relievers, should be flushed down the toilet to prevent drug abuse or accidental ingestion by children. Prescriptions should also never be given to anyone else.
“People need to be very, very cautious, especially with opioids,” Smith adds. “Some patients have developed really high tolerances for painkillers, so for them, it’s fine, but that dose could kill another person if they were exposed to it.”
“The chemotherapy and pain medications taken by many MD Anderson patients are particularly dangerous,” Bertrand adds, “and great care must be taken to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.”
Disposing of other types of medicines (such as birth control pills, antibiotics, or mood-altering chemicals) by flushing them is not advised, as traces of pharmaceuticals have been found in both water supplies and wildlife.