Safely dispose of old, unneeded prescription meds

Adobe Stock photo
Adobe Stock photo

Prescription medication are in most of our bathroom cabinets or bedside tables. But how can we safely dispose of those prescriptions we no longer use or are outdated?

Sgt. Michelle Omar of the Cedar Rapids Police Department said there’s been a big push in the past five years to provide people with more options “on how to properly dispose of unwanted, unneeded and expired medication.”

Unused or expired medications, she said, “are a public safety issue. Accidental poisoning, misuse or overdose are too great of risks to keep them around” on the off chance you may need them one day.

“Whether it be accidental or intentional, some drugs could hurt or kill someone who shouldn’t be taking them,” she said.

The benefits of properly disposing of prescription drugs also extend to the environment.

“By disposing of them through a drug disposal program, it minimizes the amount of the drugs that end up in our groundwater,” Omar said. “If people flush their medications, the drugs end up in our water table. Although our waste water goes through a water purification system, there is still a chance of that drug ending up back in our tap water at some point.”

Safety is of the utmost concern, especially given widespread abuse of opioids.

That’s why Cedar Rapids police and Linn County have partnered with other groups, including the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative, to put prescription drug drop boxes in the community.

In addition, many local pharmacies also offer drop boxes for old or unneeded medications.

Inhalers and aerosols are not accepted at all sites, so call ahead and ask if you have a specific type of medication you’re unsure about. Liquids have their own set of recommendations for disposal, too.

The Iowa City Police Department also has an on-site drop box that accepts any prescription medications — including patches, ointments, medications for pets and over-the-counter drugs.

What happens to the drugs left in the drop boxes?

Most police departments, Omar said, take the drugs to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which safely incinerates them.

“As a result, we prefer not to accept liquids,” Omar said. “We encourage the public to call their pharmacy to see if they have a safe disposal method. Worst case, pour the liquid into kitty litter or coffee grounds. Make sure the liquid gets absorbed into that medium and then dispose of the kitty litter or coffee grounds in your normal trash.”

More than 300 Iowa police departments, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, and pharmacies also host Take Back events on a Saturday in the spring and fall each year, when a publicity push encourages people to turn in unwanted medications. The one scheduled this year for April 25 was postponed because of coronavirus restrictions.

Typically, “sharps” and needles are not among the items accepted at Take Back events, though Iowa City does that, according to Ryan Wood, an Iowa City police detective. “They must be in a rigid plastic or metal container with a secure lid.”

Wood and Omar encourage anyone who has a prescription medication to dispose of it as soon as it’s no longer needed, when it expires, or when the person who has been taking the medication dies.

“I would encourage people to check with their parents or grandparents to see if they need some medications disposed of, as that is where we tend to see stockpiles of medications brought in from,” Omar said.

Wood said this is a good time to check cabinets and clean out old drugs. Just call your pharmacy or police department to see what medications they can take and if their drop boxes are open. (Some boxes are temporarily off limits, again because of coronavirus restrictions.)


“Spring and fall are great times to dispose of these items because people are already spending time cleaning out their homes,” he said.

Omar pointed out an additional fact most people don’t know: In Iowa, it is illegal to transport prescription medications out of their normal packaging.

“That being said, many people don’t like to turn in the prescription bottles that have their name on it into the drop box,” Omar said. “People can dump their solid medication — pills, capsules, etc. — into a Ziploc-type bag. They need to still keep the prescription bottles/boxes with them in their car until they drop the bag of pills into a drop box. They can then tear the labels off or mark out the personal information on the bottles and recycle the bottles.”

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