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  • What do you do with medication that is no longer needed? (Creative Commons)Source: Creative Commons
Your bathroom cupboard probably has some expired pills - tucked away in the corner. Perhaps they were painkillers from that time you had a tooth extraction. Or maybe it's an old bottle of cough syrup. When it's time for cleanup, what do you do with medication that is no longer needed? *To hear the English language story, click on the AUDIO tab*
Signe Cane / SBS Radio Latvian

26 May 2015 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 26 May 2015 - 5:29 PM

On the one hand, medication seems different from other types of garbage. It makes us think we should dispose of it differently as well. On the other hand - what are we supposed to do?

"Leave it in the cupboard [laughs] throw it in the bin. // Sometimes, yeah. Most times I take it to the chemist, and they dispose of it for you. // I return it to the pharmacy. // I bring it to this pharmacy, and they dispose of it. I don't know what they do with it, but I understand that's the correct thing to do."

There are several things people do with medication they no longer need like leave it lying around, throw it in the bin or wash it down the sink or toilet. If they end up in the water supply, these chemicals may negatively impact the environment.

However, there are ways Australian consumers can throw meds out responsibly. In 1998 the Commonwealth Department of Health researched the issue. Their trials resulted in funds provided for starting a nation-wide program for proper medication disposal.

Pharmacist Simon Appel is the Project Manager of a not-for-profit company Return Unwanted Medicines, known as the RUM project in short.

"The RUM project is a convenient method of consumers returning their unwanted and out of date medicines. They're returned through community pharmacies; the pharmacies collect those returned medicines and hold them in sealed containers, which are collected by registered transport companies and taken to incineration."

The collected meds are incinerated at a high temperature – over eleven-hundreddegrees Celsius. Everything is burned, so there are also no privacy concerns about your name on the prescription label. The incineration facilities are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

If you flush medications down the toilet or drain them in the sink, some of the pharmaceuticals will end up in the environment. Scientists are still trying to find out whether this negatively affects wildlife. Even though the answers are not yet clear, Simon Appel advocates caution.

"There's a lot of research that has been undertaken over many years, probably the last 20 years, internationally in relation to the potential contamination of waterways by pharmaceutical compounds. There's not a lot of drama attached to it, but because we don't know whether or not this could be very damaging, we need to ensure that we look after them in the appropriate way."

There are other issues with having old meds lying around. Each year the RUM project collects approximately five-hundred-and-forty tonnes of medication. Almost half of these are expired. Sometimes after expiry meds can become toxic.

According to Pharmacist Ben Thurlow, owner of Ford's Pharmacy in Newtown, not all medications are dangerous, but it's best not to guess.

"The best thing's to bring all medications back rather than trying to figure it out. There are some medications that are more dangerous, others are ones that have a narrow window where, if someone took it that they could have some serious side-effects, whereas others would be safer, but rather than trying to put a list of safe and unsafe, I think the easiest is to bring them all back."

In 2008 scientists from the University of Otago in New Zealand surveyed a number of people who had chosen to return their meds. They used special collection points in pharmacies. The survey found that most medications were returned because medical needs had changed, or because the drugs had expired. Seniors with chronic health conditions need to make sure they are not confused by the amount of medication they have in the home.

According to Simon Appel, as the population is aging, more people are on several medications at any one time.

"Aged people have a great deal of complication involved with their medications. The medication management means that in effect if your medication is changed from one product to another, you should discard the product you are no longer using."

One way to avoid confusion is to get your meds divided into daily doses - this is called a webster pack. Ben Thurlow explains that pharmacies provide this service for patients with complex drug regimes.

"We do free webster packing for patients where if you're on more than probably five meds you pack it into a weekly pack so you know exactly what time of day you can take it."

Simon Appel believes that unless children accidentally misuse them, there isn't a lot of danger associated with taking expired medications. However, there also isn't much benefit.

"The fact is that once they've expired they really won't do any good. And they're also, again, adding to the confusion in the household with different medications, and they're a real danger for children if they access that sort of medicine just lying about. There's not a lot of damage that can be done by taking an expired medicine, but there's not a lot of good."

For consumers access to the RUM project is easy. Pharmacies are required to participate in the scheme.

"It is a necessary function in order for a pharmacy to have an approval to dispense prescriptions under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme that they comply and use the RUM project."

As Pharmacist Ben Thurlow explains, the process is really simple.

"It's a big yellow bin that pharmacies can get their hands on, and you can just put the medications in the bin so no one needs to touch it if you don't want to, and then they're sealed up."

Sometimes it may not be possible to bring meds back to the pharmacy. In that case you should avoid flushing them into the water system. Instead, take them out of the packaging, mix them with coffee grounds or food waste and seal into a plastic bag before chucking in the bin. This way nobody can accidentally or deliberately ingest them.

Paying attention to your waste is a smart way to protect the environment. That includes potentially toxic substances, too.