Credit: Gatis Gribusts

Public health disaster on the cards if pharmaceutical pollution left unchecked say campaigners

A group of campaigners has written to Vice-President Timmermans this week with concerns about the health and environmental risks posed by pharmaceutical pollution.

Pollution from pharmaceutical plants is harming ecosystems and leading to the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) which could see more and more people dying from previously treatable diseases.

In a joint letter, the organisations – which include the European Environmental Bureau, Changing Markets Foundation, Health Care Without Harm Europe, and Pesticides Action Network – write:

“We are concerned that the pharmaceutical industry is currently excluded from any kind of environmental legislation, which is untenable in the light of the risk that pharmaceutical pollution poses to the environment and to human health. We expect legislative action from the Commission to tackle this issue, similar to the regulation of the chemical industry through REACH.”

The rise in AMR as a result of the discharge of drugs and particular chemicals into the environment has been identified by the UN as one of the most worrying current public health threats. A report commissioned by the British government and released in May 2015, estimated that 700 000 deaths globally could be attributed to AMR in 2015 and that the annual toll would climb to 10 million deaths in the next 35 years.

While medicines help to save lives and prevent disease, 100,000 tonnes of pharmaceutical products are now produced globally every year. Recent research published by the foundation Changing Markets revealed widespread heavy metal and solvent contamination at factories in Hyderabad, India – a major drug manufacturing hub that produces every tenth tablet sold globally.

When medicines are excreted into the water supply they end up damaging wildlife by polluting rivers and harming wild birds and fish. Wastewater treatment plants for the most part are not adequately equipped to filter pharmaceuticals out, so medicines end up having unintended consequences when they come into contact with aquatic life.

And it’s not just consumption of medicine by humans causing a problem, the use of antibiotics in livestock has significantly increased in recent years, and is a major contributing factor to the rise of AMR globally. The European Commission recently started talks with EU governments and MEPs on new laws on the use of drugs in farm animals. It also recently published its ‘One Health Action Plan against antimicrobial resistance’ – which campaigners say must be supported by policy measures and legislation in other areas.

In May the Commission is set to publish a much-anticipated strategy document on pharmaceuticals in the environment. However, a Commission official revealed in February that this document won’t contain any new draft laws.

Dolores Romano, Chemicals Policy Advisor at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said:

“We need laws that ensure pharmaceutical companies clean up their production and supply chains. It is shocking that Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) remain the only group of chemicals whose environmental impacts remain largely unregulated at EU level. We need an ambitious and effective regulatory response to be swiftly proposed by the Commission.”