Incorrect disposal of unwanted medicines harms environment


MOST UNWANTED or leftover prescription medicines are disposed of incorrectly, according to a new study.

The study undertaken by the Centre for Health from Environment at NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute, found that disposal of medicines by flushing them down sinks and toilets, or including them in general household waste, is a common occurrence which may result in environmental contamination.

Out of 207 people in Galway city surveyed regarding how they disposed of unwanted medicines, only one third regularly returned them to a pharmacy, which is the correct step to take.

More than half of respondents reported disposing of unwanted medicines along with general household waste, by flushing them down toilets and sinks, or by burning them.

Most had leftover medicines in their home.

The study was undertaken by second year medical students at NUI Galway, Sarah Cormican and Michelle Furey.

The students stressed that unwanted medicines should not be thrown into household waste or flushed down toilets or sinks as in this way they could eventually end up in rivers and ground water and could contaminate drinking water supply.

“We know that drugs are designed to have biological effects at low concentrations and therefore it makes no sense to take the risk of disposing of them in this way,” explained Prof Martin Cormican, director of the Centre for Health from Environment at NUI Galway.

“The levels of drugs in the environment are probably too low to have acute toxic effects, but the potential health and environmental impacts of long-term exposure to low levels of many different drugs is very difficult to assess,” he added.

The study concluded that when respondents were given advice by a healthcare professional, more than half would be likely to dispose of medicines correctly.

Prof Cormican said the project highlights the need to create a national system for the safe disposal of unwanted medicines similar to the battery recycling scheme.

“There is also a need for action to let people know about the need for safe disposal,” he said.

There is no ongoing national system for the safe disposal of unwanted medicines. Many retail pharmacies will take the medicines back, but they do this on a goodwill basis and at a considerable cost to them.

The HSE has in the past organised “dump campaigns” for unwanted medicines, but these are not a regular event.