Ask Eartha: Flushing medicine down the toilet has harmful environmental impact |

Ask Eartha: Flushing medicine down the toilet has harmful environmental impact

pills an pill bottle on white background
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Dear Eartha,

I was doing a little late spring cleaning and collected a bunch of expired prescription drugs. I’ve heard you shouldn’t just flush them, so what do I do?

— Angela, Frisco

Angela, glad you took the time to stop and ask about this important issue. You should never flush any pharmaceuticals or personal care products down the toilet because the contaminants will end up polluting our rivers, lakes and other vital waterways. In addition, once those contaminants are out there in the environment, humans and animals are subject to a process called bioaccumulation.

Bioaccumulation occurs when a toxic substance is absorbed by an organism at a rate greater than that which it’s lost. The higher up the food chain, the more bioaccumulation of a particular substance can occur, thus poisoning the organism. A known bioaccumulation process happens with mercury. The colloquial term “mad as a hatter” refers to the mercury poisoning of factory workers who used to make felt hats by stiffening them with mercury.

Even if bioaccumulation isn’t occurring, accidental poisonings by and unprescribed use of pharmaceuticals is detrimental to human health. By abiding by the precautionary principle and being responsible stewards of our environment, it’s important to dispose of pharmaceuticals at a designated disposal facility.

There are two convenient locations in Summit County to dispose of many different types of pharmaceuticals. The pharmacies at City Market in Dillon and City Market in Breckenridge will both accept the following at the collection bins:

Prescription medications, except narcotics or controlled substances

Over-the-counter medications

Medication samples

Pet medications


Liquid medications in glass or leak-proof containers


For those medications and Sharps not accepted in Summit County, there is a National Drug Take Back Day in April in partnership with DEA and local law enforcement entities. High Country Conservation Center is working with the Summit Water Quality Committee to host an event in conjunction with this national take back program, so stay tuned in 2015.

In the meantime, you can take the medications out of the original containers and mix them with coffee grounds or kitty litter for absorption purposes. Wrap the mixture and empty containers in newspaper to conceal it from children and pets and place gently in the trash.

Unfortunately, a Take Back Day that occurs once a year is not enough to meet the demand for a need to dispose of expired and unused pharmaceuticals. Sustainable funding for year-round programs is needed to prevent these unwanted substances from ending up in our waterways as pollution. Many take back programs are located in urban areas, so considering programs that address rural pharmaceutical disposal is also important to increase access. We are lucky we have two collection sites in Summit County, but our rural neighbors here in Colorado don’t share the same access. Stakeholders such as pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, professional health care providers, local conservation and water organizations, schools, and local law enforcement have a great opportunity for partnerships in creating programs to keep unwanted, unused and expired pharmaceuticals out of our environment.

If this is an issue that you are concerned about, please contact your state or U.S. legislators. When writing to a legislator, consider these brief tips:

Address your letter or email “The Honorable (full name of Legislator).”

Keep it brief.

Identify yourself and your relation to the legislator’s district.

Get to the point about your issue by addressing your support for or opposition to current legislation. If no legislation is pending, have a proposal or suggestion at the ready.

Relate it back to your community and the community of the legislator to whom you’re writing. Personable is more effective than a laundry list of pros or cons.

Finally, allow for follow up by providing your contact information. If you have a good proposal, you might just get a call from Washington or Denver!


2014 U.S. House of Representatives

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder

(303) 484-9596

Or visit to submit an email.

2014 Colorado General Assembly

Rep. Mille Hamner

(303) 866-2952

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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