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Once the medicine and container have been separated, there are several options for getting rid of the medicine itself.

“The easiest thing to do is put the pills into a Ziploc or other sealable bag and smash them with a hammer,” Mr. Fricker says. “The main thing is to make sure that addicts can’t tell what they are.”

The ONDCP’s guidelines then recommend mixing the medicine with undesirable substances like coffee grinds and cat box litter. Liquid medicines can also be mixed with these items.

After mixing the medicine, it should be sealed in an impermeable, nondescript container like a Ziploc bag or empty can before being thrown away with the household trash. This will help keep the medicine from seeping into the environment, Ms. de Vallance says.

Flushing medicine down the toilet was once a popular way for getting of unneeded medicine, but Mr. Fricker explains that some medicines can release chemicals into the sewer, which then get into drinking water and eventually back to humans.

“People using medicine patches should be really careful to fold them over on themselves so that the adhesive sticks to itself,” he says. “The chemicals can get into the water and impact fish.”

Instead of flushing medicine down the toilet, Ms. de Vallance says they should be thrown away with the regular trash because landfills are now required to be lined, so there’s no worry about the drugs seeping into the environment.

Some medicines specifically ask users to flush them if there are any excess pills. Drugs like Percocet and Oxycontin have these restrictions because of their high abuse rate.

Jessica Emond, deputy press secretary for the EPA, says pharmaceuticals enter the nation’s rivers from sewage treatment plants or septic systems. They are being found in minute traces in the water supply, however it is much less than what a doctor would prescribe. It is not known what effects such small quantities may have on people, she says.

“The agency is aggressively pursuing research on occurrence and fate and transport of pharmaceuticals in various water sources, possible health effects in humans and aquatic life, and the effectiveness of water treatment technologies,” Ms. Emond says.

The final recommendation from the federal government asks users to take advantage of community take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal.

While most counties in the Washington area have take-back programs for household hazardous wastes, most do not accept old or expired medicines. The Department of Public Works in the District lists old medicine as one of the items it will take during its fall and spring take-back days.

Public works departments in Virginia and Maryland also have household hazardous waste take-back days, but they do not take back old medicines.

For more information about the new federal guidelines, visit www.whitehouse drugpolicy.gov.