WASHINGTON (CBS WASHINGTON) — Many old and expired drugs are still effective despite being even decades old.

With dozens of drugs in short supply in the US and a massive national health bill, a recent study looked at whether or not expired medication would still be effective. Lee Cantrell, director of the California Poison Control System in San Diego, tested drugs that ranged from 28 to 40 years old.

Out of the 14 compounds they analyzed, 12 still fulfilled government requirements for potency, according to the team’s report, published on Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

“The vast majority of the samples tested contained at least their stated potency and therefore their active ingredient would still be viable,” Cantrell told Reuters Health. “At least some of them, 50 years and they are still potent!”

The drugs included the narcotic painkillers hydrocodone and codeine as well as the sedatives pentobarbital and butalbital. Aspirin and amphetamines were the only two drugs that appeared to have degraded to less than 90 percent of their declared amount, the minimum accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to the study.

Drug shelf lives usually range between one and five years from production. But that’s an arbitrary expiration set by the manufacturer, said Cantrell, because the FDA doesn’t require companies to determine how long the medicine retains its potency.

“If manufacturers were required to do longer-term stability tests, it could be an enormous cost-saver for consumers,” he said, adding that it could also “be an answer to some of the world’s drug shortages.”

Americans spend more than $300 billion on drugs every year. Cantrell said it is unclear how much medicine is thrown out because it’s too old, but suggested it would be an “enormous amount.”

But Cantrell warned against making drug recycling a common practice.

“When the average reader reads this, the take-home message is not, ‘Your expired medications are safe to take,'” warned Cantrell.

Still, he said, to his knowledge there has only been one report of a drug that became toxic after it had expired, and that was due to an inert ingredient in one particular manufacturer’s formulation.

Since 1986, the FDA has been testing drugs stockpiled by the military to check their stability under the so-called Shelf Life Extension Program. Many of those drugs have had their original expiration dates extended by several years and that has saved between $13 and $94 for every $1 spent on testing, according to recent research.

According to Reuters, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s main trade group, said they were still reviewing the new study and could not comment yet.


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