Leftover drugs stored in home medicine cabinets can too easily get into the wrong hands. Picture: Unsplash
Leftover drugs stored in home medicine cabinets can too easily get into the wrong hands. Picture: Unsplash

How to take the right steps when disposing of expired medication

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Nov 23, 2021

Share this article:

Many families will be looking at spring cleaning their homes and getting ready for the holidays soon.

One place in your home that might not be on your list as you dust and declutter is your medicine cabinet. It should be.

Just like the closet full of clothes you might not have worn in a while, medicine cabinets should be cleared out regularly, so that unused and unwanted medicines don’t stay on the shelf unnecessary.

Gerda Potgieter, from Medipost Pharmacy, says: “Medicine cabinets should be cleared out regularly, as certain types of medicine may degrade and lose their effectiveness over time, and may even become hazardous.”

Even the way we store medication could be a health hazard.

As a safety measure, the team at MedicinePlus suggest you store your medicines in a cool, dry place.

For example, you can store some medication in your dresser drawer or a kitchen cabinet away from the stove, sink, and any hot appliances.

You can also store medicine in a storage box, on a shelf, in a closet. “If you are like most people, you probably store your medicine in a bathroom cabinet. But the heat and moisture from your shower, bath and sink may damage your medicine. Your medicines can become less potent, or they may go bad before the expiration date,” says MedicinePlus

Leftover drugs stored in home medicine cabinets can too easily get into the wrong hands. Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics says one of the dangers of keeping unused medication at home is that it often leads to misuse among teenagers.

“Another concern is accidental medicine overdose, which is surprisingly common in South Africa. Leftover medication is often used to self-medicate, but when the wrong combination of medicines is mixed to treat minor ailments, the consequences could be serious.

“Equally, in children, where there is easy access to multiple medicines, it could be fatal. About 40% of calls to the Poisons Information Centre at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, concerning children under the age of five, are due to the ingestion of medicines.”

It is quite common to not want to throw away medicine but Jennings says: “People rationalise and think that leftover medication, which includes vitamins and health supplements, might come in handy someday, but before you know it, those medicines have expired and may cause more harm than one realises.

“After expiry, many medications lose their effectiveness, and some may even become toxic. It’s important to keep in mind that once a medication has expired, manufacturers can no longer guarantee the medication’s safety or efficacy.”

When it comes to disposing of medication, some people tend to throw it away with the general waste or flush it down the toilet. But doing so has negative effects on the environment and on human health as well.

“This medication will end up in our water system, where it can be harmful to the environment, plants, animals and even humans, as molecules inevitably find their way back into our food chain,” says Justice Tootla, the managing director of waste management company Averda.

“According to the Medicines and Substance Act, the disposal of any medicines down municipal sewers is against regulations.”

The disposal of expired medicines along with general household waste is also cause for concern as it will eventually end up on a landfill site, presenting two problems.

One is waste pickers and drug addicts, who scour these landfills looking for either left-over medication containing cortisone, or used needles, fuelling their addiction and risking their health.

“The second problem is the danger it presents to our environment. When biological materials start to decay, they release methane gas into the atmosphere and this is many times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide,” adds Tootla.

Responsible storage and disposal of your prescription medications is essential to keep our families and communities healthy and safe.

How should consumers safely and responsibly dispose of their household’s medical waste?

Tootla suggests that the public, especially people who have chronic diseases, can purchase the correct medical waste containers from reputable suppliers, and use those to dispose of expired medicines or used needles.

“Depending on the weight, you are looking at a cost of between R20 to R100, which is nothing when compared to the long-term effects of not correctly disposing of medical waste.”

Other ways to clear your medicine cabinet safely:

  • Take unwanted/expired medications out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter.
  • Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
  • Before throwing out the medicine container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.

“If we are serious about making a difference to the world we live in, it begins with the small changes we need to make when disposing of any of our waste streams, be it at home or at the office.

“It is our responsibility to protect and take care of our environment and remember that all our precious ecosystems are deeply connected,” says Tootla.

Share this article: