Don’t Flush the Ambien!

An ecofriendly strategy for disposing of prescription drugs

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

  • Pills

    image by Jennifer Daniel

  • Pills

What should you do with expired or unneeded antibiotics, hormones, painkillers, Viagra? If you flush ’em, they end up in the water supply, and soon enough in fish and wildlife, where they can have sublethal and, in the case of hormones, feminizing effects on fish. Municipal waste­water treatment plants simply cannot remove the smorgasbord of chemicals humans pour into their bodies these days. And if you dump them in the garbage, compounds can leach into landfills.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has stringent requirements for the collection of controlled substances (a law enforcement officer has to do it), which is why postal take-back and pharmacy take-back programs have been hard to get off the ground. But San Mateo County, California, came up with a simple solution: refurbished postal collection boxes—painted with red biohazard logos—stationed in police departments.

The program is the brainchild of county supervisor Adrienne Tissier, who faced a medicine cabinet full of painkillers, sedatives, and other medicines after her father passed away in 2004. When she took office in 2005, Tissier worked with the county Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association to provide convenient, environmentally friendly pharmaceutical disposal. The program launched in late 2006. There are now 11 county drop-off sites, at which citizens have deposited more than 1,800 pounds of pharmaceuticals. Illegal drugs, such as methamphetamines, cannot be put in the boxes, which are periodically emptied by a hazardous waste disposal company.

In June 2007 the program won an achievement award from the National Association of Counties, and Tissier’s legislative aide Bill Chiang says their office has received calls from wastewater and health departments in Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Michigan, as well as the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the Miami-Dade County police department. “There is huge interest,” says Chiang, who hopes that the program “won’t be so unique for long.”

Until then, contact your local waste management authority to inquire about disposal options. The Environmental Protection Agency also maintains a list of hazardous waste disposal resources, state by state, at

Reprinted from Terrain (Fall-Winter 2007), published by Berkeley’s Ecology Center. Terrain is distributed free throughout Northern California. Subscriptions: $15/yr. (3 issues) from 2530 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA 94702;

Virginia W
4/17/2008 12:00:00 AM

I saw a news report this last week about nursing homes that were required by the federal government to destroy unused medicines and were bursting open bubble packs of pills and flushing them all down the toilet. These are drugs purchased with taxpayer money that are being destroyed and they are polluting the water system. There must be a better way!

3/12/2008 12:00:00 AM

FYI: Many medications, even opened ones, prescription and non, can be donated to animal shelters and veterinary hospitals. It is a huge help to them if you donate anything useful, especially something so expensive as medicines. You can ask which they'd accept, or just drop off the lot and let them deal with it.

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