Though 40 percent of all prescription medications go unused, according to the Henry Kaiser Foundation, most people hold onto them for years, because they don't think to dispose of them or don't know how to do it safely. Often, following the many examples in TV and film, people will flush unwanted pills down the toilet, but this may have dangerous ramifications for the environment, says Shrank.
"In one systematic evaluation of the drinking-water supply for 28 million Americans, researchers detected antihypertensive, anticonvulsant, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, lipid-lowering, or estrogen-containing compounds in more than half the samples of source water and in some, albeit a smaller proportion of, samples of finished drinking water," he writes. It is unknown whether these traces come from improper disposal of pills or substances that are excreted after consumption.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends that an unused medication be taken out of its original container, mixed with an "undesirable substance, like cat litter or used coffee grounds," put in a sealed container, sealed and thrown away with the trash.
"Once a year go through your medicine cabinet and get rid of those drugs that have expired, prescriptions you never finished, and any prescription pain medicines. It's also a good time to check and see if any of your over the counter medications have been recalled," says Besser.
Waiting for a designated prescription drug "take-back" day is another option for disposal, Levey says. He says these take-back days will be held periodically until permanent drop-off locations for unused drugs can be established nationwide.