Seniors & Aging

Got a medicine cabinet full of old and unused medications? Here’s how to empty it

Medicine cabinets provide teens and others with a treasure trove of easily accessible pharmaceuticals that can be dangerous or deadly if misused.

Storing unwanted or expired medicines in homes contributes to the epidemic of medicine abuse and preventable poisonings in the communities, according to Regina Delahunt, director of the Whatcom County Health Department.

Additionally, improper disposal of medicines down the drain or in the household trash adds to pharmaceutical pollution in the environment, including in Puget Sound and the community’s drinking water sources.

About one-third of medicines sold go unused and need to be safely disposed of to protect families and the environment. In a recent Whatcom County survey, 57 percent of respondents reported having unused, expired or unwanted medicines in their homes. Some of the reasons this occurs are:

A large amount of medicine is needed for a serious illness or end of life care, and the patient recovers or passes away;

Prescribed medicines are changed because the patient has a bad reaction or to find the best course of treatment;

“As needed” medicines expire before they are used;

Medicine is overprescribed or excess over-the-counter medicines are purchased;

People choose to discontinue the use of their medication.

According to the same 2016 survey, nearly one-third of respondents reported experiencing a situation where they or someone they know had medicines taken from their home for use or abuse by someone else.

Medicines cure diseases and help keep people healthy, but to prevent harm, medicines need to be stored safely in the home and disposed of properly when leftover or expired. Secure medicine return programs provide a secure and environmentally sound way to dispose of unneeded medicines and are part of a comprehensive approach to preventing prescription drug abuse, according to Delahunt.

Against this backdrop, the Whatcom County Council, in its role as the Health Board, voted unanimously in December to adopt regulations that create and pay for a secure medicine return program for Whatcom County. The new program will make getting rid of leftover or unwanted medicines more convenient by expanding the number of secure locations where people can drop off unused medicines.

The Whatcom County Health Department proposed the regulation at the request of the Whatcom County Health Board as part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent prescription drug abuse and poisonings.

“This new county-wide secure medicine return system is a public health win that will help keep potentially dangerous medicines out of our local waters and out of homes where they can be intentionally and unintentionally misused and abused,” Delahunt said. “It’s an important piece of the puzzle in preventing opioid addiction, and we are pleased to be able to expand this option so that it’s more readily available to everyone in Whatcom County, not just in certain locations.”

The regulation is modeled after secure medicine return regulations enacted in King, Snohomish, Kitsap and Pierce counties. It requires pharmaceutical producers to provide and finance the secure medicine return system. The system is coordinated by a stewardship organization, which provides drop-off kiosks at approved locations and disposes of returned medicines in a secure and environmentally-sound way. The Whatcom County Health Department is responsible to oversee and monitor the program.

The county’s attention on this issue served as a prologue to the Secure Drug Take-Back Act that Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law in March. The law creates the nation’s first statewide, comprehensive drug take-back program to be financed and provided by pharmaceutical manufacturers that sell drugs in Washington state.

The Secure Drug Take-Back Act focuses on prevention, seeking to shut down the “drug dealer” in the home, which is the medicine cabinet.

That is a common starting place for medicine misuse and addiction. A majority of people who abuse prescription drugs obtain them from family and friends. In Washington state, overdose deaths have surpassed car accidents as the most common cause of accidental death. According to the Washington State Department of Health, of the almost 700 opioid overdose deaths in 2016, more than 400 were attributed to prescription opioids.