The disposal of old mercury thermometers and unwanted medicines must be done properly, but is not as difficult as some may think.

Any old mercury thermometer, whether for medical use or even cooking, must be taken to hazardous waste disposal. Unfortunately, the available disposal methods vary by state, so you need to check your own. Often hospitals will accept them for disposal, as they accept used needles (also called “sharps”). But if you can’t find one, contact state or county authorities.

Medicines are another matter, so I am simply going to blockquote from the most recent release from the FDA. This covers not only prescription medications but OTC ones as well.

Most drugs can be thrown in the household trash, but consumers should take certain precautions before tossing them out, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A few drugs should be flushed down the toilet. And a growing number of community-based “takeback” programs offer another safe disposal alternative.

Guidelines for Drug Disposal
FDA worked with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop the first consumer guidance for proper disposal of prescription drugs. Issued by ONDCP in February 2007 and updated in October 2009, the federal guidelines are summarized here:

• Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information that accompanies the medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.

• Take advantage of community drug take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service (see blue pages in phone book) to see if a take-back program is available in your community. The Drug Enforcement Administration, working with state and local law enforcement agencies, is sponsoring National Prescription Drug Take Back Days throughout the United States.

• If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first:
° Take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will be less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
° Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.

FDA’s Deputy Director of the Office of Compliance Ilisa Bernstein, Pharm.D., J.D., offers some additional tips:

• Before throwing out a medicine container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.

• Do not give medications to friends. Doctors prescribe drugs based on a person’s specific symptoms and medical history. A drug that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.

• When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.

An additional note: While many are concerned about the pollution of the environment, the EPA notes that most drugs that reach the environment come not from disposal, but from being passed from the body of those who take them. The amount of pollution from disposed-of drugs is minimal by comparison. Can’t do much about that, but we can use safe disposal wherever possible.