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Sorting Through the Confusion About Getting Rid of Leftover Pills

Ryan Caron King
A medicine drop box in the Hartford Police Department lobby that was donated by CVS.
Not every pill gets used, and leftovers like prescription opioids can be dangerous if abused.

According to the CDC, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012. That's enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills at home. 

But not every pill gets used, and leftovers like prescription opioids can be dangerous if abused. 

In the second of a two-part series, WNPR investigates the confusing variety of choices available for people looking to safely dispose of leftover medication. 

On Monday, we met Julie Spencer. She's got a few old prescriptions -- not a lot, but still, she doesn't want them hanging around in her house.

"I shouldn't admit this," Spencer said, "but I know I did clean out the medicine cabinet one day. I found things in there that were from my husband's mother, and they were from 15 years ago. And I was like, 'Really! You're not going to take this stuff!'"

Spencer threw those old pills out. But today, stowed away in a nightstand in Spencer's Bloomfield home, are other old pills that she just doesn't know what to do with -- things like leftover Vicodin, and drugs for a bone condition, which raises a question: where should those old pills go?

Consumers want quicker, more convenient disposal options.

"We used to flush 'em down the toilet," said John Dobbins, a pharmacist at UConn Health in Farmington. And for some opioid drugs like Percocet or OxyContin, flushing them down the drain is still the course of action recommended by the Food and Drug Administration

But Dobbins, a former water commissioner for the town of Southington, said drain disposal is the wrong option. The state consumer and environmental departments agree, advising people in bold letters on their respective websites not to flush any leftover medication down the drain.

To that end, in 2009, Dobbins teamed up with the towns of Southington and Bristol, starting a drug take-back day. Residents could drive up, drop off their pills, and leave -- no questions asked.

"I think the first year, we did three 55-gallon barrels," Dobbins said. That's over 30,000 doses of leftover medication, which was collected in just four hours.

By the program's final year, Dobbins said they filled nine barrels -- lots of old drugs, just waiting around in medicine cabinets for one or two days a year when they can be disposed of locally or through federally-sponsored take-back programs.

"But if you're worried about kids or neighbors or adults taking those meds out of the house -- even though they're awaiting to be destroyed, having them hang around for a year or six months doesn't really help you much," said John Gadea, a pharmacist and director of drug control for the state Department of Consumer Protection.

Gadea said local and federal take back days a few times a year are beneficial, but consumers want quicker, more convenient disposal options, especially for prescription painkillers and controlled substances like opioids. 

Credit Charles Williams / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
A medicine drop box in the Hartford Police Department lobby.
The Hartford Police Department has a drop box for unused medication.

"Kids are going into their medicine cabinets and stealing pills out of there of all different types and varieties. And parents, most of the time, don't realize it's happening until it's too late," said Brian Foley, Deputy Chief with the Hartford Police Department. "People seek pain killers, and do anything they can to get pain killer pills. That turns into an opioid addiction," Foley said. "The opioid addiction then manifests itself into a heroin addiction."

Jeff Holland, an EMT in New Canaan, who also volunteers with Communities 4 Action, said he saw people abuse prescription drugs when he was an emergency responder. "I had seen some of it on some calls on the ambulance at the time, and had seen some about it in the news and began following it and seeing that it was a real problem," Holland said.

So a few years back, Holland helped pioneer the idea of Connecticut's medicine drop boxes -- secure, one-way bins placed inside police departments. He helped pilot the idea in four police stations in Fairfield County.

Today, more than 60 departments across the state have these drop boxes and the program is growing. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Hartford Police Deputy Chief Brian Foley.
"We're not going to ask questions. We're not going to ask your name. Come in. Deposit the narcotics in there -- and walk away."
Brian Foley

Foley said Hartford Police installed a drop box in their department's lobby last year. It looks like a small red mailbox, is bolted to the floor, and accessible 24/7. While needles and inhalers aren't accepted -- pretty much everything else is, including medicine for pets and opioid painkillers.

"We're not going to ask questions. We're not going to ask your name. Come in. Deposit the narcotics in there. The medication in there -- and walk away," Foley said. "We're not going to give you a hassle."

Foley said that every month, about six to eight pounds of medication go into the drop box. The pills are later destroyed by two officers during periodic drug burns at a local waste incinerator.

Pharmacist John Gadea from Consumer Protection said last year alone, people deposited over 20,000 pounds in leftover pill drop boxes across the state. "It's really nice," he said. "You have the security. You have the safety factor."

If taking leftover pills to the police station is too much of a hassle, Gadea said there's one more option for disposal.

Connecticut no longer landfills curbside trash, so Gadea said to dissolve the leftover pills in some hot water and put them in something like an old yogurt container. Then, he said, throw something gross in there to make it unpalatable, like used kitty litter or coffee grounds.

"That way once a week you throw it in the trash. It's bound up with some duct tape. It's not identified. It's not in the vials," Gadea said. "And it gets picked up just like any other trash and it gets incinerated."

So, toss your old pills in the trash or deposit them safely with police, just please don't, Gada said, flush them down the toilet.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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