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Don't pour old medicine down the drain: experts

BERLIN--It looks simple: pour the cough mixture residue down the drain and flush the headache tablets that have passed expiry date down the toilet. Superfluous and unusable medications appear to be disposed of easily.

The reality is different. Medications discarded like this end up putting a strain on the environment.

It is much better to take them to a collection point for hazardous substances or put them in normal household refuse after ensuring that they are unrecognizable.

Medication residues from human waste in any case end up in the environment through sewage. While this is unavoidable at the moment, “medication should under no circumstances be disposed of down the toilet,” says Claudia Thierbach, a specialist in the area working for the German environmental authority.

This puts additional quantities of medication into the environment as current water purification plants are unable to remove all the chemicals in the effluent.

Over the long term, these residues could have serious consequences. Laboratory studies have revealed that hormones in water, even at extremely low concentrations, can lead to the feminizing of fish, Thierbach says. Ultimately the fish could die out as a result of being unable to breed.

Painkiller residues should also not be underestimated, as they cause kidney damage to fish, she says.

They key is to take all discarded medications to special collection points from where they are sent for incineration. Pharmacies in many countries are obliged to take returned medication, although it is not always obligatory.

One problem that arises with the disposal of medicines in this way is that they are then often kept for some time in the home before disposal, with the result that they may be accessible to children, often attracted by brightly colored pills.

In many countries it is perfectly permissible to dispose of old medications in the normal household waste. In such cases, medications should be rendered unrecognizable as far as possible to ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands.

On no account should old medications be donated to charity as the potential for misuse is too great, the German authorities say. The medications desperately needed in developing countries are in any case different to those used in quantity in the developed world.

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