Flushing unused or old medications down the toilet can pollute our waterways. Throwing them in the trash could lead to unintentional use, overdose or illegal abuse. So, how can you safely dispose of them?

Chemicals are being discovered in water that previously had not been detected or are being detected at levels that may be significantly different than expected.  These are often generally referred to as “contaminants of emerging concern” (CECs) because the risk to human health and the environment associated with their presence, frequency of occurrence, or source may not be known.

EPA defines emerging contaminants as:

An emerging contaminant (EC) is a chemical or material characterized by a perceived, potential, or real threat to human health or the environment or by a lack of published health standards.

A contaminant also may be “emerging” because of the discovery of a new source or a new pathway to humans. EPA is working to improve its understanding of a number of CECs, particularly pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and perfluorinated compounds among others.


Pharmaceuticals are synthetic or natural chemicals that can be found in prescription medicines, over-the-counter therapeutic drugs and veterinary drugs. Pharmaceuticals contain active ingredients that have been designed to have pharmacological effects and confer significant benefits to society. Pharmaceuticals can be introduced into water sources through:

  • sewage, excreted by individuals and patients who have used these chemicals
  • from uncontrolled drug disposal (e.g. flushing drugs into toilets) and
  • from agricultural runoff comprising livestock manure.

They have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public because of their potential to reach drinking-water.

Pharma Disposal Programs

National Drug Take-Back Days

From 2010 to 2014 the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had hosted National Drug Take-Back Day events that helped thousands of Pennsylvania families safely dispose of drugs. Prescription drugs pose threats to waterways and public health if flushed down the toilet, and therefore must be disposed of properly. The national collection events helped to prevent pill abuse and theft and provided a program for Americans to rid their homes of potentially dangerous expired, unused, and unwanted prescription drugs.  The service was free and anonymous, no questions asked.

Due to changes in regulations and recent rulings, please be advised that the DEA is no longer sponsoring nationwide Drug Take-Back Days.

There are few options for residents to safely dispose of unneeded medications.

Residents are encouraged to take their pharmaceuticals to PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Program’s Permanent Drop-Off Boxes (free & confidential). Find them here.

Residents may also take their pharmaceuticals to DEA “Authorized Collector” sites. Find these sites by calling the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control Registration Call Center (1-800-882-9539) or by visiting their webpage.

Check the  personal care products you use. Find safer alternative personal care product brands at EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics database.

Public Education

Report: Emerging Contaminants of Concern in the Delaware River Basin by A. Ronald MacGillivray, Ph.D. Delaware River Basin Commission February 2007

Public Education Resources

VIDEOPSR Philadelphia has partnered with the Philadelphia Water Department to release a video on the proper disposal of unwanted, unused or expired medications at home.  The video, “Trash It!” shows viewers how to protect their identifying information on labels from prescription medications, place medicines – liquid or pills – into a sealable container, mix it with an undesirable substance, such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds, and toss it in household trash.

The three-minute video follows the directions issued by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  The instructions are designed to be easy to follow, as unwanted medicines in the home pose a risk of confusion as to which drugs are needed and also raise the risk of misuse.

The video and an accompanying flyer, “Trash It! Most Unwanted Medicines Belong in the Trash,” can be viewed via the PSR Philadelphia website.  A one-minute version of the video is also available online on the PSR Philadelphia YouTube channel.


PSR developed an illustrated flyer to accompany the videos above: Trash It! Most Unwanted Medicines Belong in the Trash,” can be viewed at the PSR
Philadelphia website









Brochure: “Do You Know What’s In The Water?”


Resources Developed by Pennsylvania Sea Grant

Dose of Reality – 12 page newspaper supplement
What you can’t see – Hidden chemicals in your water – 12-page newspaper supplement
Undo the chemical brew – brochure
Say good ridance – PPCP chemicals

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