Globally there are concerns over the lack of proper disposal methods for medical waste – particularly unused and expired pharmaceuticals – most of which are disposed of incorrectly, posing a health hazard for humans and the environment.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), consumers and caregivers are encouraged to “remove expired, unwanted, or unused medicines from their homes as quickly as possible to help reduce the chance that others accidentally take, or intentionally misuse, the unneeded medicine, and to help reduce drugs from entering the environment.”

More often than not, unused and expired medicines are either thrown in a trash bin, or flushed down the toilet. Although these methods of disposal are effective, they can also seriously affect water supplies.

An investigative report by the Associated Press (AP) found that trace levels of many common drugs were found in drinking water supplies throughout the United States (US), raising concerns about the impact that these may have on public health.

The report stressed that water supplies can become contaminated simply because unabsorbed medication in the body is passed by urine and other sources into wastewater. Moreover, most wastewater treatment plants fail to remove all traces of drugs.

“Flushing the old medications down the toilet is a guarantee that they’ll end up in the water supply, and even throwing them in the trash means they are likely to end up in a landfill and eventually contaminate the groundwater, leading to medication contamination of lakes, rivers and streams,” explains Dr Mohamed Mohsin, senior researcher at Global Medical Waste Management Market.

Both the WHO and the Global Medical Waste Management Market recommend that the most effective way to dispose of expired and unused medicine is through medicine take-back options.

With this method, unused and expired pharmaceuticals are given back to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and drug enforcement agencies (DEA). In first-world countries such as the US, for example, the DEA periodically hosts national take-back events for prescription drugs, where temporary collection sites are set up in communities nationwide for safe disposal of prescription medicine.

Other take-back options include permanent collection sites set up by drug enforcement agencies to securely collect and dispose of pharmaceuticals.

According to the South African Pharmacy Council, there are a few safe ways to dispose of expired and unused medicines, the safest of which is through one’s pharmacy. The best time to do this is during annual National Pharmacy Month in September, when pharmacists all over South Africa assist in responsibly discarding unused and expired medicine. Most pharmacies will, however, accept expired and/or unused medicine throughout the year.

It is also worth noting that the instructions inside or on the back of a medicine container should provide guidance on the best way to dispose of that particular medication. If these instructions are not available, it is best to check online, or to call the company that manufactured the medication to find out the best way to dispose of unused and/or expired pharmaceuticals.

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