When somebody is treated with a course of prescription drugs, they often times have a little left over — for example, when I got my wisdom teeth removed, I had an excess of mild pain killers and I still have leftover antibiotics from my recent trip to Burma. The question is what to do with these leftovers? Do you leave them in your medicine cabinet, where kids could swallow them by accident or teenagers could use them to get high? Do you flush them down the toilet, where they could cause water contamination? Or do you simply throw them away?
The Drug Enforcement Administration has been encouraging Americans to eschew all of these options by organizing drug take-back programs at community pharmacies and police departments. The problem with take backs is that they are infrequent, and often quite expensive to expand. Now, though, researchers at the University of Michigan say that, from an environmental perspective, trashing them may not be so bad.
The important part of this equation is the fact that drugs collected by take-back programs are incinerated, so they are not without environmental effects. In the study, the researchers examined three methods of drug disposal: flushing, trashing and incineration. According to NPR, they took into account “how much of the drugs would enter the environment, but also looked at emissions impacts from transportation, water treatment, and burning of waste materials.” They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that flushing is worst for the environment: it creates more air pollution than trashing, and allows large amounts of drugs to enter the environment.
Since incineration facilities are often far away, and people have to travel to a drop-off point to give up their drugs, the take-back programs are actually less environmentally friendly than disposing of unused drugs with household trash, in part because communities already have systems for picking up the trash. So even though trashing and incineration allow roughly equal amounts of the drugs to enter the environment, incineration produces much higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions than trashing.
This is good news for people fighting the abuse of prescription narcotics by teenagers. Among the nearly 1-in-10 high school seniors who said they used prescription drugs without a doctor’s order in 2011, users were mostly likely to report getting the drugs for free from friends or relatives. In other words, any efforts to get unused prescription drugs out of people’s houses will likely reduce prescription drug abuse among teenagers. It’s an added bonus that the most eco-friendly way of disposing of drugs also happens to be the easiest.
Photo Credit: Tom Varco