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Keep pharmaceuticals out of local waterways with drug take back day

URBANA, Ill. – That expired bottle of pills sitting at the back of the medicine cabinet was once useful, but now it’s just taking up space. The question is – what do you do with it? Flush it? Throw it away?

Either choice puts drugs into nearby rivers or lakes putting the environment, people, and animals at risk. Take a few minutes to clear your medicine cabinet and drop off unwanted items during National Take Back Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. Find a free and anonymous drop off site at

Sarah Zack, pollution prevention specialist for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and University of Illinois Extension says the old advice was to flush unneeded medicines down the toilet or throw them in the trash to get them out of the house. But these “easy” methods of disposal have unintended consequences for public health and the environment.

“Research has shown that there can be negative effects to animal health and reproduction from pharmaceuticals that haven’t been removed from wastewater,” Zack says. “Wastewater treatment plants weren’t designed to remove many of the compounds getting into them.”

Traces of painkillers, estrogen, antidepressants, and blood pressure medicine have been found in water samples from across the country. There is a growing body of research on the environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals in waterways, but any potential long-term human health impacts are unclear.

Take back days are coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to help prevent drug addiction and overdose deaths. The most recent take back day in April collected 420 tons of medicine at more than 5,000 sites across the nation. Pills and patches may be dropped off, but liquids or needles are not accepted.

Besides take back programs, people should also communicate with their health care providers about medicine quantities. “One way to prevent unwanted medicine from accumulating in the first place is to refuse a 90-day supply of a medicine if a 30-day supply is sufficient,” Zack says.

To learn more about permanent collection sites or for information on how to dispose medicine where drop offs are not available, visit Anyone interested in setting up a permanent medicine disposal site at a police station can contact Sarah Zack at

SOURCE: Sarah Zack, Pollution Prevention Specialist for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and University of Illinois Extension
WRITEREmily Steele, Media Communications Coordinator, Illinois Extension

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.