Clock ticking on pharmaceutical pollution crisis

Five organisations have teamed up to call on the European Commission to take action on pharmaceutical pollution.

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

In a joint statement, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the European Public Health Alliance, Changing Markets Foundation, Healthcare Without Harm, and PAN Germany urged European policymakers to “ensure that Europe’s response to the threat posed by the presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment (PiE) is taken seriously”. They want “timely, resolute and coordinated” action across all relevant EU policies.

The organisations write:

“European policies need to recognise that the increased presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment and the effects are entirely preventable – if Europe accepts its leadership responsibility to address the root causes and makes available dedicated resources.”

The Commission is set to publish a long-awaited new strategy on tackling pharmaceuticals in the environment. The strategy document will contain a series of measures to alleviate pollution and other damage caused by pharmaceutical residues released into the environment. However, a Commission official revealed in February that this document won’t contain any new draft laws.

The much-anticipated strategy on pharmaceuticals and the environment will follow on from the Commission’s recently published ‘One Health Action Plan against antimicrobial resistance’ – which campaigners say needs to be supported by policy measures and legislation in other areas.

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 Changing Markets Foundation 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 skyrocketed 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.