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Health Column: Cleaning out that old medicine cabinet

I recently decided to clean out the all-purpose linen closet at my 93-year-old mother’s house in Connecticut, and the results were astonishing. The packed shelves coughed up at least four brimming shopping bags of everything from old prescriptions — Xanax, Dalmane, Vicodin, Valium and Percocet — to antique vials of Absorbine Jr., Anbesol and Prell shampoo. Some of the prescriptions dated back to 1981 and came in clear plastic bottles with typewritten — yes, as in Smith-Corona — labels.

Since local disposal was inconvenient, my inner Girl Scout insisted that I schlep the discards back to the North Fork, where I would do the right thing by taking them to the drop-off bin at the police station.

Much emphasis has been placed recently on the safe disposal of expired or unused medications, due both to the explosion in addiction to various controlled substances and to the damage they can do to our water supply. I’ve also learned that many prescriptions retain some degree of their original effects well beyond the manufacturer’s expiration date. And some medications can actually increase in potency over time. More good reasons to handle them with care.

But my stash also included a lot of non-prescription stuff I didn’t really know how to cope with: Ben-Gay, Miralax, cough medicine, hair remover, etc. So I made a few calls asking for tips on some of these dumping dilemmas. I found that procedures vary widely, though, so it’s probably best to check in advance about specific or questionable items.

The principal rule of thumb, however, is that it’s never OK to dump any medication down the drain or flush it down the toilet.

All prescription medications, including controlled substances, can be dropped in disposal bins at the Southold or Riverhead police departments. There is also a drop-off bin at the county sheriff’s department near the Suffolk County jail in Riverside. Pills can be in their original containers or sealed in zipper bags; no loose pills, please! Medicines in liquid, spray or ointment form, which may leak or liquefy, should also be place in baggies. It isn’t necessary to identify medications in baggies.

Eastern Long Island Hospital’s pharmacy will also accept prescription medications, except controlled substances, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Peconic Bay Medical Center’s pharmacy does not accept any prescription discards.

Retail pharmacies vary in their policies. Southold Pharmacy cannot accept controlled substances, but will accept other prescription medications, as long as the drug is in its original container with its name visible and the patient’s name blacked out. Barth’s Pharmacy in Riverhead, on the other hand, will accept both controlled and other medications, with the same requirements as Southold.

Needles and injectables require special and separate disposal. Lancets and injector tips — such as those from Epi-Pens and pens that deliver diabetes medications — should be placed in special “sharps” disposal bins. Same goes for intact injectors that have never been used. Such bins can be found on the lower level of ELIH at the support services department, near the attendant’s booth at the Southold Town transfer station and at Barth’s in Riverhead.

Most over-the-counter medications like pain relievers, allergy medications, antacids and vitamins/supplements can also be put in the disposal bins or, since they’ll ultimately be incinerated, in your household trash.

Cosmetics and personal care items — shampoos, soaps, moisturizers, lotions, makeup (which can go bad over time) and the like — can go out in the regular trash.

The Southold Town Police Department reportedly collects as much as 200 pounds of unwanted medication every three months, so word is clearly getting out. From there, the discards are sent to Covanta in Huntington for incineration. If a trip to the police department or hospital isn’t convenient (or comfortable), you can also put prescription pills in baggies with coffee grounds or cat litter, which will compromise active ingredients, and place them in your regular garbage.

Have a health column idea for regular columnist Rachel Young? Email her at [email protected].