Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet Safely


As each New Year begins, it's a great time to see if any of your medicines should be discarded because they are too old or no longer needed. On prescription bottles, the label will often tell you when the medicine should be discarded. On over-the-counter medicines and sample medicines, the expiration date (the date it should be discarded) is often printed on the label under "EXP," or stamped without ink into the bottom of a bottle, carton, or the crimp of a tube.

For medicines without an expiration date, unless you know you purchased it within the past year, it's best to toss it. As time passes, medicines may lose their effectiveness, especially if they are stored in a medicine cabinet in a warm, moist bathroom. In rare cases, outdated medicines could become toxic. For example, taking expired tetracycline (an antibiotic) can cause serious kidney problems.

In the past, most people flushed old medicines down the toilet. This was done to prevent accidental poisonings of children and animals who may find medicines in the trash. But today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) no longer recommends this. Sewage treatment plants may not be able to clean all medicines out of the water. This may harm fish and wildlife. Fortunately, drinking water for humans has rarely been shown to have traces of medicines.

To throw away your medicines safely, check with your local government. Many cities and towns have household hazardous waste facilities where you can bring your old medicines. Or ask your pharmacist about proper disposal in your area. If disposal in regular trash is your best option, follow the steps below to prevent accidental poisonings with children and animals, and to protect your privacy.

  • Keep all medicines in their original container with childproof lids attached.
  • Mark out anyone's name that may be printed on a prescription container.
  • Place liquids in a plastic sealable bag in case it leaks or breaks.
  • Put everything inside a sturdy container (like a plain brown box).
  • Add a non-toxic but bad tasting product like cayenne pepper to the container.
  • Make this container the last thing you put in the garbage can before pick-up.
Created on January 1, 2005

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