Monday, July 18, 2011

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble

QUESTION: I have  a collection of old medicine bottles, all unopened, from a local pharmacy. Most contain narcotics and have the original corks intact in them.  How should I dispose of the contents, mostly liquid, some pills, how to remove the corks to save them, as well as how to clean the bottles without ruining the labels?

ANSWER: Like witches brew, old medicine bottles can contain some nasty substances. Many are extremely volatile and shouldn’t be mixed with any other substance. But before I get to disposing of the contents, it’s important to know what the laws are governing such them.

Collectors of old medicine bottles do so for the bottles, themselves, if made before 1920. They’re especially interested in the bottle shapes. Those who collect bottles made after 1920 collect them for their contents and their labels. Generally, while collectibles, like cereal boxes, are worth more with their contents unopened, this isn’t so with old medicine bottles.
Laws governing the sale of containers with flammable, corrosive or poisonous contents have been on the books since 1908.  Cough syrups and other medicines often contain alcohol, classified as a flammable liquid by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The penalties are severe for selling bottles containing dangerous substances, especially in today’s terrorist-prone world.

Nationally, it’s the responsibilities of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to regulate toxic substances and investigate violations. In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which became the legal foundation of the government's fight against the abuse of drugs and other substances.

The law is a bit lax when it comes to poisons, such as strychnine and a deadly product called mercury bi-chloride, formerly used as an anti-syphilitic and to clean wounds. So how do you dispose of nasty substances like this?

While most drugs can be thrown in the household trash, you need to take certain precautions before tossing them out, according to the FDA. The agency used to recommend that people flush some drugs down the toilet, but they no longer do since some of these dangerous substances have been found in the soil and water table. One possibility is to pour kitty litter into a plastic bucket and then pour the bottle contents—cough syrups and other liquids—into it. Let it sit for a while, then scoop up the kitty litter into a double plastic bag and toss it into your trash. Make sure you use enough kitty litter to soak up the contents. Do this outside preferably on the day before your trash will be collected.

You can do the same with pills and capsules, but instead of kitty litter, use coffee grounds. Pour the capsules in a Zip-Loc plastic storage bag containing the coffee grounds and mix the pills into them. Seal and place in your trash.

If you’re not sure how dangerous your bottle’s contents might be, you can look up the medicine in an older edition of the Physician’s Desk Reference or the Merck Manual. However, some of these substances, such as mercury bi-chloride, may no longer be used and, therefore, won’t be listed in any of the reference books. If in doubt, check with a local pharmacist.

The easiest way to clean old medicine bottles after you have disposed of the contents is to rinse them with a solution of warm soapy water. Don’t make the water too warm or the label will come loose. If the bottle has any residue or stains in it, especially those with narrow necks and small openings, you can buy a set of inexpensive fish cleaning brushes from your local pet store. If you can’t find these, check the baby aisle in your local drug store for soft bristle baby bottle brushes.
If the stain persists, pour a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water and let it set for a few hours, then try brushing the inside of the bottle again.

Unfortunately, the corks on old medicine bottles will have absorbed some of the solution and are just as dangerous as the bottle’s original contents, so throw them out. You can reuse those on bottles containing pills.

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