April 26 (UPI) -- Communities around the United States offer drug drop-off days that help to temporarily reduce the temptation to use opioids. Some experts say providing year-round methods for people to get rid of medications would be more helpful in removing the pathway for addiction.
"Studies suggest that most patients do not dispose of their unused opioids after surgery," Chad Brummett, director of pain research at Michigan Medicine, told UPI. "These pills can become a source for diversion and abuse by vulnerable populations, including children and young adults."
One study showed only 28 percent of patients disposed of pills, usually by throwing them in the trash, taking them to a police station or flushing them down the toilet.
Flushing pills can pollute drinking water. Yet some organizations endorse flushing certain medications. The FDA suggests flushing oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and other opioids when a disposal bag or drop-off program isn't available. It also listed several drugs that contain fentanyl as flushable medications.
When researchers in the study gave another group of patients Deterra bags to dispose of leftover opioids, the disposal rate doubled. The bags sell for $7 apiece.
"The options for disposal of controlled substances are incredibly limited," Brummett said. "There are a limited number of registered places for return of opioids, and most of these are law enforcement. While some recommend flushing, this puts opioids in our water. There are now detectable levels of oxycodone in the oysters in Puget Sound."
Drugstore chains have worked to curb opioid use by providing drug drop-offs at all of their stores.
"We accept prescriptions, including controlled substances, and over-the-counter medications. This includes fentanyl," said Phil Caruso, a spokesman for Walgreens. "We have more than 1,000 safe medication disposal kiosks available across the country, available year-round at no cost. Our kiosks do not accept needles or hydrogen peroxide, thermometers or illicit drugs."
Similarly, CVS, the largest pharmacy chain in the United States, offers the same services.
"If a patient's local CVS Pharmacy has a medication disposal bin, they can drop off any unused or unwanted prescription medications, over-the-counter medications and liquid medication bottles (less than 4 ounces in a Ziplock bag)," said Amy Lanctot, a CVS Health spokeswoman.
The federal government also offers programs for getting rid of unwanted medications.
The Drug Enforcement Agency holds a National Drug Take-Back Day twice a year, with the first held this Saturday. The agency offers a searchable list of drop-off locations based on where users live at its website.
At the last National Drug Take-Back Day, on Oct. 16, the agency collected 457 tons of prescription drugs at more than 5,800 sites.
"Generally, collection sites do not accept liquids or sharps/needles -- only solids, such as pills and patches," DEA spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff said. "This is for safety purposes, since sharps can be harmful to anyone handling them if not in a proper container, and liquids can leak, exposing anyone disposing of that substance. Fentanyl is accepted as long as it is in a solid or patch form."
One study suggested, however, that drug drop-off locations had "a minimal impact on reducing the availability of unused controlled medications at a community."
The researchers looked at drug donation boxes in five Kentucky counties over a four-week period in 2013. That year, more than 21 million controlled drug units were dispensed and nearly 47 percent of them were opioids. Only 21,503 units were deposited in drug take-back boxes, 40 percent of which were opioids.
This shows that many people with leftover opioids don't throw them away past the time they're needed, researchers say.
A 2016 Johns Hopkins University study showed that over 61 percent of people reported keeping leftover pills to use in the future. That means people may be keeping opioids to take later or to pass along for someone else.
Research shows that more than 70 percent of people who use opioids for non-medical purposes obtain their pills from friends and family.
Opioid abuse has become an epidemic in the United States. From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people died from opioid abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opioid-related treatment, such as prevention and treatment programs, cost state and federal government agencies throughout the United States nearly $38 billion in tax revenue, according to one study.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimated there were more than 70,000 opioid deaths in the United States in 2017.
To find a drug drop-off location, visit disposemymeds.org.