By Jenny Neyman
When food expires, there’s a natural warning system to indicate it’s time to throw it away. Fuzz, funky smells and decomposition slime are all clear cues the item should be discarded, rather than consumed. Miscellaneous bottles of condiments or the odd jar of olives may hang out in the fridge longer than they should, but it’s rare for perishable items to stay on the shelf for years to decades past their prime.
The same doesn’t hold for medications, where there’s no indication of expiration save a date on a label. But just like food should be tossed after it expires, so should drugs of all kinds — from over-the-counter painkillers and cold remedies, to prescription medications.
That’s the stance of the Drug Enforcement Agency, which is promoting a nationwide effort to encourage safe, routine drug disposal. On the central Kenai Peninsula, law enforcement agencies, the Central Peninsula Hospital Foundation and Soldotna Professional Pharmacy have teamed up to encourage and facilitate unused and/or expired drug disposal as a way to protect the health of homes, communities and the environment.
“Returning unwanted med-ications makes homes safer, getting them out of the hands of kids or other people who shouldn’t take them,” said Kimberly Hansen, with Soldotna Professional Pharmacy. “For our community, proper and safe disposal prevents theft and improper use of the medications.”
Prescription medications aren’t always taken until gone. A patient may have a negative reaction and stop taking the prescription, or stop when the condition improves. Oftentimes those medications sit on a shelf, with a patient thinking they may use the medication in the future, or else just not getting around to discarding it.
That can be dangerous, Hansen said. Medication should be taken with a doctor and pharmacist’s oversight, and self-medicating with expired prescriptions, especially when medical conditions and other prescriptions may have changed, can have serious ramifications.
Even if taking expired meds — prescription or over the counter — doesn’t result in poisoning, it may not result in anything positive.
“It might not hurt you, but it might not make you feel a whole lot better, either. It’ll lose it’s potency over time, so you might not get the full effect of the stuff,” Hansen said.
Keeping unneeded medications around raises the risk that kids may accidentally ingest them, or that the drugs may get stolen and put into circulation in the community. To help prevent that, the pharmacy is serving as a drop-off location for expired and unneeded medications. Anyone can bring in unused medications and dispose of them with no cost and no questions asked.
Twice a year, special drug disposal days will have an officer with the Soldotna Police Department stationed at the pharmacy to accept controlled prescription medications for disposal, as well — again, with no questions asked. The rest of the year, controlled prescription medications can be brought the Soldotna Police Department and disposed of in a secure lockbox in the lobby, which was paid for by the Central Peninsula Hospital Foundation. Still with no questions asked.
“By giving the public a safe place to dispose of unwanted drugs, we think we are extending the way that we protect and serve our community into a new dimension,” said Soldotna Police Chief John Lucking.
Part of the drug-disposal effort is to encourage people to discard pharmaceuticals properly. If drugs are thrown in the trash, flushed or poured down a drain, they can end up in the environment, poisoning water supplies, ecosystems and wildlife.
“Being a river city, we have a special appreciation for the importance of keeping our water free of contaminants. It could be an environmental disaster if they would find their way into our beautiful Kenai River and local streams,” Lucking said.
Any pharmaceutical disposed of at the pharmacy or with law enforcement will be safely incinerated.
“You can take old medications, grandma’s liver pills or whatever you find lying around, to them and they will dispose of it. It’s just a wonderful community service they’re providing to keep the stuff away from kids and out of the water supply,” said Sgt. Duane Kant with the Soldotna Police Department. “We have partnered with them to take in controlled prescription medications they, by law, can’t take in. Everybody should take advantage of it, in my opinion, especially for old meds. There’s really no use for them and so much potential for disaster.”
The first special drug-disposal day in Soldotna was held Sept. 25, and Hansen said that about 45 pounds of medications were collected. The pharmacy has been participating in the program since last March, and has collected about 150 gallons of expired medications since then, she said.
“We’re trying to give everybody a different way, rather than throwing them away or flushing them down the toilet, which I think everybody has been doing forever,” she said.
Well, those who were getting rid of extra or expired meds typically did so in the trash or toilet. Many more simply didn’t get rid of them until they were educated about the risks of not doing so. As a result, the pharmacy collected an impressive volume, variety and vintage of meds.
“We’ve had stuff brought back that expired in 1974. That was the oldest thing so far. It’s amazing what people hold onto. It’s unbelievable when people start cleaning stuff out,” Hansen said.
The next special drug-disposal day is scheduled for April 30. In the meantime, expired over-the-counter and prescription medications can be dropped off at the pharmacy, and prescription and controlled substances can be disposed of at the police department. And, as always, if anyone has questions about medications — whether they’re safe to keep and take, feel free to ask, Hansen said.
“Pharmacists are more than happy to answer those questions. Or even, ‘Hey, I found this. What’s it for?’ We get a lot of that stuff, too,” she said.