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National Prescription Drug Take Back Day

Person drinking water from a pipe. Keep it clean on National Drug Takeback Day
April 25, 2018 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

Our country’s tragic opioid epidemic has rightfully grabbed a lot of health headlines lately. So while the many-headed beast of drug addiction and abuse are on our radar, I want to be sure you’re observing best practices when it comes to managing your own prescription drugs. You can play a role in curbing another kind of threat—to all of us.

America’s bad drug habit

Americans take more prescription medications today than at any other time in recent history.

  • More than half of us now regularly take prescription drugs—4 different ones, on average
  • The percentage of all Americans taking more than 5 prescription medications has nearly tripled in the past 20 years
  • In the 55 and older population, 33 percent were taking more than 5, and 9 percent were taking more than 10.

This is a gigantic problem in itself. In no other country are doctors dispensing powerful drugs at such a great rate. We’re talking about billions of pills and potions circulating around the country.

We’re also talking about the fact that some 40 percent of those drugs are never used.

This is seriously dangerous.

What happens to unused drugs?

That’s my focus today, because April 28 is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. This is an annual Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) event that helps people dispose of unused drugs—billions of them—safely.

I want to make sure you know how important it is for you to participate.

Don’t make dirty water even dirtier

Behind the DEA’s effort are years of research that has found significant traces of powerful prescription medications in places we don’t want them to be …

In our local, municipal drinking water.

One study of the water 28 million Americans drink found an ominous list of powerful drugs and other substances—in more than 50 percent of the water sources tested.

On the menu:

  • Anti-allergy
  • Antibiotics
  • Anti-bipolar
  • Anti-convulsants
  • Anti-depression
  • Antihistamines
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Blood thinners
  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs
  • Estrogen, other hormones
  • Pain killers

Even heavily treated drinking water doesn’t come clean. In an investigation by the Associated Press, drinking water supplies in 24 major metropolitan areas were found to include drugs. And another study found that some 40 million Americans are facing the same threat.

How did they get there?

Two ways drugs enter our waterways

Millions upon millions—picture a mountain—of unused drugs are washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet every year. Maybe people have seen that done in movies or on TV and just don’t know better.

But that’s not the sole cause of drug-infested waters. Even when your medications are taken as directed, some of the remnants pass through the body as waste—they’re also contributing to the dirty work.

How serious is the problem of drugs in our water?

As usual, there’s plenty of debate about how serious this is when it comes to most of the drugs that have been found.

On one side of the debate, there’s not enough hard science to connect trace amounts to bad outcomes. They’re measured in parts per billion, and even trillion, almost undetectable. At those levels, how serious could this be?

On the other side—my side—holy cow, how could this not be serious? We need to look no further than to antibiotics.

You’ve heard of antibiotic-resistant superbugs?

Antibiotics work only when taken over the full, prescribed course. They build up strength, day by day, until they can deliver a knockout punch.

Stopping short of the full term gives the target bacteria time to evolve to resist the drug attacking them.

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But many people stop taking the antibiotic as soon as symptoms begin to recede, figuring—wrongly—that the drug had worked and the infection needed no further treatment.

So the unused antibiotic ends up in the medicine cabinet, and then ends up down the drain or the toilet.

This is one factor leading to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that no known antibiotic can kill.

They’re already among us, killing more than 23,000 Americans a year.

This is so serious that the World Health Organization labels superbugs “a fundamental threat to humanity,” and warns of a “post-antibiotic age,” when a minor infection can be fatal. Our US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) simply calls them “nightmare bugs.”

Need anyone say more?

All the other drugs lurking in our waters carry with them their own threats, though none as terrifying and well proven as antibiotics. At least not yet.

The hormone estrogen, for example, found in oral contraceptives, has been linked to fish that have both male and female reproductive organs. The concern here is the sheer number of contraceptive users, and the fact that the hormones in the pill and other drugs can be very powerful in very small amounts. Add in the volume of multi-medication discharges from healthcare facilities, and the problem grows.

And this is hard to believe, but just about all of the drugs-infested waters studied pass through wastewater treatment plants. These plants, however, were built before the drugs pollution issue hit the news. To date, many of them aren’t equipped with pharmaceutical filters—nor does the law require them to be.

Kind of unbelievable. That’s got to change.

While we wait for that change, let’s not make things worse.

How and why to participate in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day

The 15th National Drug Take Back Day is on April 28 from 10 AM until 2 PM. You can find the collection site closest to you and tons of other useful info online.

Last year’s Take Back Day hauled in 912,305 lbs (456 tons) of unused drugs at more than 5,300 sites across the country. That’s a lot of bad medicine kept out of our water.

So please do get yourself to the nearest collection site, with all of your expired or unused drugs. You’ll have a nice, cleaned out medicine cabinet and a nice, clean conscience.

Doing the right thing is good medicine.

What if you can’t participate in Drug Take Back Day?

You’re totally forgiven if you can’t get to your closest Take Back collection site. You can do the next best thing on your own, by collecting your unused drugs and disposing of them properly.

That could be as easy as bringing them to your local pharmacy, hospital, or clinic. Many are able to accept and destroy unused drugs. If you’re not sure whether they do, call and ask.

If no disposal instructions are given on the drug packaging, and you don’t have a nearby drop-off place, follow these simple steps to throw the drugs in your household trash:

  1. Remove the medicine from its original container and mix it with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter.
  2. Place the mixture in a sealable bag or other container strong enough to prevent medicine from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
  3. Conceal or remove any personal information, including Rx number, on the empty container by covering it with permanent marker or duct tape, or by scratching it off.
  4. Put the container in your household trash receptacle.

I know you’ll want to do the right thing. It’s part of taking good care—of all of us.


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