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Where do old medicines go?

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survey finds 65% of Aussies dispose of medicines in the household garbage, while a further quarter pour them down the drain

The results of a 2016 survey on medicines disposal have been recently published in the Australian Health Review.

Conducted by pharmacy researchers from Griffith University and the Queensland University of Technology, the online survey was representative of national distributions for gender, state-territory and age (except for the 18-24 years age bracket).

Of 4,302 participants who were Australian adults aged over 18, 60% reported “unwanted medicines” in the home – i.e. medicines that are expired and/or no longer required (both opened and unopened).

The majority of survey respondents (65%) disposed of unwanted medicines “with the usual household garbage”, followed by “poured down the drain or toilet” (23%).

A further 23% stated their method of disposal was “taken to a business or shop” (e.g. pharmacy or chemist).

Only 18% of all 4,302 respondents had heard of the RUM Project – the national scheme for returning medicines to a pharmacy for safe disposal – despite the project having been operating since 1998.

However once informed, 92% stated they would use it, while the remaining 8% said they would not, most commonly because it was “a waste of time, too much hassle or too difficult”.

Of those that held onto medicines:

  • 75% did so “just in case they needed them again”
  • 32% did so because “it was a waste of money to dispose of them”
  • 18% “did not know how to dispose of them”, and
  • 9% kept medicines “to give them to family or friends if they needed them”

The preferred public health message for returning medicines was: “Unsafe storage of medicines can lead to unintended poisoning” communicated via television.

However, people who spoke a language other than English at home were significantly less likely to rank this message or “Sharing medicines with friends or family is unsafe” as most important.

Respondents from higher-income households were more likely to prefer the message “Unsafe disposal of medicines can end up in the drinking water”.

These findings “present an opportunity to design targeted strategies” say the authors.

For example, a targeted campaign for a yearly “medicines spring clean” combined with an awareness campaign for healthcare workers.

Australian Health Review 2017; online 19 Dec

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