How often has this happened to you: Your doctor prescribes a medication and you stop taking it — either because you don't need to take the full course or your doctor changes dosage or medication — leaving a half-empty pill bottle in your bathroom drawer or cabinet.
Unfortunately, our common approach to cleaning out the medicine cabinet is the same as cleaning out our refrigerator: we throw old and expired items into the trash or down the sink — or, in the case of drugs, down the toilet.
This is an outdated approach, for a number of reasons. Medications tossed in the trash could be removed by a curious child, a scrounging animal or a person abusing drugs.
"A relatively recent, but alarming, and growing trend is the abuse of prescription narcotics," notes Julie Abraham, director of pharmacy and clinical/ancillary services at Sharp Coronado Hospital. "Most of these people — often teenagers — obtain these drugs from the medicine cabinets of family or friends. What we tell our patients is: If it's not being used, it needs to be gone. If the patient needs to return to the medication later, he or she can contact their physician and discuss a refill."
Meds poured down the sink or toilet flow to sewage treatment plants, which are not equipped to filter most chemicals. Drugs continue on to lakes, streams or oceans where "treated" water is ultimately disposed of. Here they can have adverse, poisonous effects on aquatic plants and wildlife. Antibiotics in the environment can also contribute to the development of drug-resistant bacteria, which in turn pose a threat to humans.
So what to do? The best answer is to take leftover drugs to a collection site. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has installed secure collection drop boxes at more than two dozen sites around the county. Collection times, locations and instructions can be found on the Sheriff's Department website.