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Stop pharmaceutical residue from seeping into the environment, urges OECD

Too little being done to protect people and animals from subsequent harms or assess risks posed, says report

Caroline White

Friday, 15 November 2019

Not enough is being done to prevent pharmaceutical residues from seeping into soil, water supplies, freshwater ecosystems and the food chain, or to assess the potential risks this seepage poses, finds a report* published this week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Most of the roughly 2,000 active ingredients currently used in human and animal pharmaceuticals have never been evaluated for their environmental risks, says the report, adding that several dozen new active ingredients are typically approved for use each year.

A study cited in the report estimates that 10% of pharmaceutical products have the potential to cause environmental harm. Those of greatest concern include hormones, painkillers, and antidepressants.

Concerns over rising antibiotic content in wastewater fuelling the spread of drug-resistant bacteria have been raised at G20 level, the report points out.

Pharmaceutical residues can enter the environment during the manufacture, use and disposal of medicines, it says.

When these enter the animal and human food chains, between 30% and 90% of the ingredients are excreted as active substances into the sewage system or the environment.

Some medicines that are thrown away unused, end up in landfill, or when flushed down the toilet, in sewer systems. In the United States an estimated one third of the four billion medicines prescribed each year ends up as waste, says the report.

Conventional wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove pharmaceutical residues, and water resources are not systematically monitored for them either, warns the report.

High levels of pharmaceutical residues have been found downstream of drug manufacturing plants. Pharmaceutical products used in farming and aquaculture can enter water directly or via surface runoff without any treatment.

Because these products are designed to interact with living organisms at low doses, even low concentrations can affect freshwater ecosystems, says the report.

There is growing evidence of their harms, with laboratory and field tests showing traces of oral contraceptives causing the feminisation of fish and amphibians, and residues of psychiatric drugs altering fish behaviour.

Unless adequate measures are taken to manage the risks, the situation is set to worsen because pharmaceutical use will rise as populations age. And advances in healthcare, rising meat and fish production, and the rise in use of antibiotics given to livestock in emerging economies will only add to the problem, says the report.

The report makes a raft of recommendations, including increased monitoring and reporting of pharmaceutical residues in the environment; consideration given to environmental risks in the future authorisation of pharmaceuticals; the provision of incentives to design pharmaceuticals that don’t build up in or harm the environment.

It also says that the number of pharmaceuticals entering the environment should be cut back, by adopting approaches such as the use of public procurement to demand high standards of manufacturers or with the creation of “take-back” systems to return unused or expired medicines for safe disposal.

And awareness of the issues needs to be proactively raised among the public, doctors and vets to reduce excessive consumption, along with an upgrade of wastewater treatment plants to remove pharmaceutical residues, it says.


*Pharmaceutical residues in freshwater: hazards and policy responses. A report prepared by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, November 2019.

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