Green and sustainable chemistry: the end for pharmaceutical pollution

Lewis Carroll once said “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”, but scientists seem to have found their way to address pharmaceutical pollution.

It’s been 25 years since Paul Anastas, the Director of Yale University's Centre for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, defined the concept of “green chemistry”.  On 3-6 April 2016 chemists from all over the world attended the Green and Sustainable Chemistry Conference in Berlin to share visions of how to end pharmaceutical pollution in the environment.

Think environment

In the past two decades, there has been a paradigm shift in the scientific community about what is knowable and unknowable, what is possible and impossible. Defined as “the design of products and processes that minimise the manufacture and use of hazardous substances”, green and sustainable chemistry has been proven possible within the last quarter of century.

It is well known that pharmaceutical residues have been detected in surface water, sewage effluents, groundwater, drinking water, manure, soil, and other environmental matrices. Furthermore, it is also known that antibiotics in the environment can promote the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.  However, little is known about the effects on humans from continuous, long-term exposure to low concentrations of pharmaceuticals, hence the need for green and sustainable chemistry to change the way chemical and pharmaceutical industries work.

Renewable whenever possible

One of the main principles of green chemistry is the use of renewable products whenever possible. Environmental and sustainability issues can be addressed along the entire life-cycle of chemicals and chemical products, and another main focus of “green chemists” is designing pharmaceuticals that are easily biodegradable, and harmless for the environment. This makes green and sustainable chemistry highly important for future sustainable development.

Benign by design

The concept of “benign by design” focuses on avoiding the presence of harmful chemicals in the environment in the first place, whereby products’ end of life is taken into account in their very design. This is meant to avoid the after effects linked to the disposal of pharmaceuticals, including the common practice amongst patients of disposing of unused pills in the toilet, sink, or household rubbish. 

Just a matter of time

Scientists have decided to take on the challenge of redesigning pharmaceuticals; which can sometimes mean changing the very structure of the original molecule, but they still have to function as a drug.  Scientists are determined to find solutions that are both environmentally and economically preferable, and they have already started working towards this

As green chemistry becomes more popular, a change in the global perception of pharmaceuticals is simply a matter of time.


- Adela Maghear, Pharmaceuticals Policy Officer