Pharmacists who cringe when they have to toss expensive drugs once they expire may be interested to hear this drug dump may be unnecessary—and may be a contributing factor to big waste in the medical industry (estimated to be $765 billion a year), as well as the overall high costs of US health care. Per an article co-published by NPR and ProPublica, the term "expiration date" may be a misleading one, as the authors note the dates given to drugs are just the FDA and pharma companies' guarantee of how long the drugs will work (generally two to three years), not a definitive statement that they won't work past those dates. The article documents the work of two researchers, Lee Cantrell and Roy Gerona, who ran tests on drugs found in a pharmacy closet: 14 different types of compounds, including painkillers, stimulants, and antihistamines, between 28 and 40 years past their expiration dates.
The results, which were published in 2012: Twelve of the 14 compounds were still surprisingly potent, some close to 100% of the concentration they boasted when they were labeled. "The active ingredients are pretty darn stable," Cantrell says. This doesn't mean the scientists are advising people to keep popping their pills after that stamped date has come and gone—it just means they want a review of what they say is the "arbitrary" process by which the dates are allotted. What the ProPublica report also reveals: that the FDA has long known a drug's shelf life may not be set in ink, and that the feds have "saved a fortune" by hoarding "massive stashes" of meds, vaccines, and antidotes in safe places around the US, including with the CDC and the US military. Read the article on this "open secret" here. (Read more prescription drugs stories.)