Pharmaceutical waste is a form of medical waste that includes unused medications, over-the-counter personal care products, and sometimes accessories such as sharps, used test strips, and other supplies. It is a cause for concern because it poses a threat to human and environmental health. Because of the dangers, pharmaceutical waste cannot be disposed of like conventional waste and requires special handling, whether it comes from a hospital, clinic, pharmacy, or private household. Other types of medical waste include biohazardous waste and radiation waste.
There are several concerns with the management of pharmaceutical waste. The first is that medications released into the environment by being thrown away or excreted in unmetabolized form could pose health risks. Some drugs contain heavy metals, endocrine disruptors, and other compounds that are dangerous for animals and the environment. There is also a risk that poorly controlled waste could end up in the hands of people who misuse the medications.
Supplies like sharps, sometimes classified as a form of pharmaceutical waste, can contain hazards such as blood, in addition to putting people at risk of injury. Other risks of pharmaceutical waste can include the development of antibiotic resistance in organisms exposed to the waste, or disruption of the balance of flora at sewage treatment plants as a result of exposure to excreted drugs. Chemicals in products like sunscreen, shampoos, and soaps can cause environmental damages, especially when they are released on a large scale.
Historically, people were often advised to flush excess medications down the toilet, while disposing of supplies like unused sharps in the same medical waste containers designated for biohazardous sharps. However, the practice of flushing medications is no longer encouraged since wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to handle pharmaceuticals. Instead, individual consumers may be told to wrap their medication containers in tape to prevent leakage before throwing them away, or to bring them to a hazardous waste collection site.
On the scale of clinics and hospitals, pharmaceutical waste can be collected along with other medical waste by a company that specializes in handling potentially hazardous waste materials. A special fee is typically charged for this collection service. Unused and expired medications and other pharmaceutical supplies can be safely disposed of by waste management companies. This includes over-the-counter preparations, ranging from sunscreen to aspirin, that may need to be discarded as a result of expiration or spoilage. Certain unused products may be eligible for donations, another potential avenue for disposal.