Tuesday, 19 April, 2011: A new study undertaken by the Centre for Health from Environment at NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute, finds most unwanted or leftover prescription medicines are disposed of incorrectly. Disposal of medicines by flushing down sinks and toilets, or including in general household waste, is a common occurrence and may result in environmental contamination.
The research was conducted by 2nd year medical students at NUI Galway, Sarah Cormican and Michelle Furey. Out of 207 people surveyed for the Public Awareness Regarding the Safe Disposal of Unwanted Medicines in Galway City study, most had leftover medicines in their home but only one third regularly returned them to a pharmacy. Over half of respondents reported disposing of unwanted medicines along with general household waste, by flushing down toilets and sinks, or by burning.
The study was undertaken in the context of international reports which show that many people do not know that unwanted medicines should not be by thrown into household waste or flushed down toilets or sinks. This is because the drugs can eventually end up in rivers and ground water and may 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 Professor Martin Cormican, Director of the Centre for Health from Environment at NUI Galway. He added, “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.”
The study concluded that when respondents were given advice by a health-care professional, over half would be more likely to dispose of medicines correctly.
In Ireland there is an additional problem because there is no ongoing national system for the safe disposal of unwanted medicines. Many retail pharmacies will take back unwanted medicines, but they do this on a goodwill basis and at a considerable cost to them. The HSE have in the past organised ‘dump campaigns’ for unwanted medicines but these are not a regular event.
Professor Martin Cormican added, “The project highlights the need to put in place a national system for 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.”