Pharmaceuticals: Human & Environmental Health

Modern medicine enables us to live longer, healthier lives. Many diseases once considered deadly, can now be easily treated with a quick trip the pharmacy. But what happens to those drugs when we no longer need them?

Nearly 5% of pharmaceuticals produced in a given year are wasted for one reason or another. Outside of their intended use, many are hazardous to healthy people and the environment.

Pharmaceuticals as hazardous materials

Three federal agencies regulate how pharmaceutical waste is defined, transported, and destroyed. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, determines what pharmaceuticals are hazardous and need specialized disposal methods. The Food and Drug Administration, FDA, determines how pharmaceutical waste is collected and safely processed. The Department of Transportation, DOT, determines how pharmaceutical waste is transported.

The EPA classifies wastes into five categories:

  1. P-listed or acutely toxic
  2. U-listed or toxic
  3. D-listed or reactive(flammable or corrosive)
  4. F-listed or industrial/manufacturing substances
  5. K-listed or specific industries such as petroleum

Around 30 pharmaceuticals are considered listed wastes and EPA regulations determine how it should be treated. Some P-listed drugs include Arsenic trioxide(chemotherapy), Epinephrine, Nicotine, Nitroglycerine, and Warfarin(blood thinner).

Many drugs and their containers are U-listed wastes. IV bags, gloves, syringes, and tubing that contain or come into contact with a U-listed drug are considered hazardous too.

Reverse Distribution: ‘pharmaceutical recycling’

A method used by hospitals, pharmacies, and wholesalers to return unused pharmaceuticals to the manufacturer or developer for reuse or recycling into new pharmaceuticals. Sometimes the reverse distributed materials are not suitable for reuse or recycling and are then managed as hazardous waste.

Disposal and treatment

When a pharmaceutical has expired, is no longer needed, or cannot be recycled it becomes waste. The EPA determines how the substance is classified and if special precautions must be taken. Listed wastes must be treated and disposed of according to the regulations for its listed category.

  • Non-hazardous wastes can be taken to municipal solid waste landfills
  • Registered medical waste vendors can handle medical wastes such as sharps and non-hazardous drug waste.
  • Hazardous waste, such as P-listed and U-listed wastes, must go to a licensed hazardous waste incinerator.

Have questions about pharmaceutical waste? Looking for advice on how to dispose of something? Contact the Safety & Sustainability team!

EHS Director: Ronnie Souza  | | 207-602-2488

Associate Director of Sustainability: Alethea Cariddi | | 207-602-2507

EHS Specialist: Peter Nagle | | 207-602-2791

EHS Specialist: Davis Martinec | | 207-602-2046