Flushing your medication down the toilet seems like a bad idea given that you’re dumping the medicine right into the sewer and the local environment. In certain situations, however, that’s the FDA’s recommended method. Here’s what you need to know.
You may have heard about the contamination of water sources with pharmacological compounds in the news. In light of that news, you may have made a mental note to never flush any medications down the toilet as a method of disposal. That’s a good rule to follow, but toilet-based disposal has its time and place (which is even recommended by the FDA). Here’s the breakdown of how you should dispose of medication per FDA guidelines.
First, check to see whether your local pharmacy or doctor’s office has a “take back” program for medication—call them directly or check this FDA-maintained list. This is the best option because the drug is collected and disposed of properly. You can dispose of any prescription or over-the-counter medication this way. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t fulfill the prescription at the location; they’ll still happily accept the medicines for disposal.
If you can’t find a local disposal site, the FDA recommends this fallback method: Remove all the medications from their containers, fill a large ziplock bag with something really undesirable (like used kitty litter or rotten food), and mix in the medication. The idea here is that a big bag of colorful pills is enticing to curious children or people riffling through your trash looking for drugs, but nobody wants a big bag of dirty cat litter.
There is, however, an exception to the bag-it-and-trash-it method. The FDA has a short list of compounds considered so dangerous (PDF) that it advises disposing of them in a fashion that prevents anyone from accidentally gaining access to them. Ideally, you would dispose of these medications through a pharmacy’s take-back program. Barring that, you should not leave them anywhere (including in your trash can) where anyone can get them. In such cases, you should flush them immediately. The stance of the FDA is that the risk of accidental exposure is much higher than the much smaller risk of water contamination.