Old expired medicines – prescription and other - are dangerous. If you keep them around your toddler might mistake them for sweeties, your teenager may take a diuretic for his headache, or God forbid, your husband might pop a little blue hormone replacement tablet mistaking it for something else.
So we're all in agreement: old meds should go. But what to do with them? I, for one, just chuck them in the bin (or at least I used to until I started researching this article).
Confused and a little embarrassed by my own ignorance, I asked the Health24-team what they did with their old meds, and the results are a little worrying: 60% of them put them in the trash; 20% flush them down the loo; and the remaining 20% do both.
"We know it is common practice for the public to pour old and unused medicine down toilet bowls or wash basins, or to throw it into municipal refuse bins," says Lorraine Osman, spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa (PSSA).
This is good and well for everyone inside the household, but what about the rest of the world - the planet and the creatures living on it?
Old medication is considered medical waste, and medical waste is a biohazard. Apart from the obvious dangers to other people, it is also a threat to animals and the environment.
This is because nearly all unused pharmaceuticals disposed of by the public enter either the solid waste system or the sewage system, says a report by the PSSA. Neither disposal method is environmentally sound.
What's wrong with the bin?
When discarding old or unused medicine in the trash, it could be found and accidentally or intentionally consumed, either by people or by prowling neighbourhood pets.
Even if the medication makes it to the rubbish dump, it still holds dangers for the environment. Exposed to the elements, packaging soon disintegrates, chemicals leak into the soil and make their way into the water table - where they ends up in the natural waterways, poisoning fish, birds and other creatures, including humans.
Don't flush meds down the loo
Pharmaceuticals flushed down the toilet pass through sewage treatment plants, which are generally not designed to screen for these chemicals.
In 2002, a US Geological Survey of 139 streams across 30 states found that 80% of waterways tested had measurable concentrations of prescription and non-prescription drugs, steroids and reproductive hormones.
The long-term risk to the environment are not fully known, but birth defects affecting the ability of fish to reproduce have been observed, as well as changes in the number of fish and the ratio of male to female fish.
"It is very important for consumers to know that every tablet, capsule or syringe that is dumped in an unsafe and irresponsible manner might have a detrimental effect on the air we breathe, the water we drink and the ground we walk on," warns the PSSA.
So what to do with old meds?
"Currently there are few safe and convenient ways for consumers to dispose of unused medicine," admits the PSSA. For this reason, the PSSA has mobilised pharmacists nationwide to participate in a national awareness campaign to help the public dispose of old medicine and pharmaceutical products, such as used syringes and needles.
"During national Pharmacy Week, from 1 to 7 September, pharmacists countrywide will assist consumers in getting rid of old and unused medicine in a safe and responsible manner," says Osman. "This is an excellent opportunity to spring-clean medicine cabinets and dispose of old medicines that accumulate during the winter months."
During this week, all participating pharmacists will display signs and posters in their pharmacies, inviting consumers to bring their old and unused medicines to the pharmacy from where it will be transported and destroyed safely and legally.
"The purpose of this campaign goes beyond Pharmacy Week, and the intention is for consumers to become more aware of the safe use, storage and disposal of medicine as a general safe practice in their households."
- Wilma Stassen, Health24, September 2008
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