Progress - but much more is needed to fully address the impact of pharmaceuticals on our health and the environment in the EU

Brussels, 18 March 2019


The European Commission (EC) does not present a truly comprehensive approach to fully address pharmaceutical pollution, which contributes to a severe public health crisis responsible for over 25,000 deaths a year across the EU and an annual cost of more than €1.5 billion to the economy.

Last week, after almost three and half years of delays, the EC released its long-awaited Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment to address the threats posed by the release of pharmaceuticals to both environmental and human health. This EC communication also aims to address threats related to the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – identified as a leading cause of death by 2050 in the recently released UN Global Environmental Outlook report

HCWH Europe welcomes the release of the communication, originally due in 2015, as a strong EU legislative framework is urgently needed to protect both environmental and human health.

“Although we welcome this step forward by the European Commission, the Strategic Approach is still far from comprehensive in its scope. Whilst the release of this communication highlights that this problem can no longer be ignored - it largely fails to propose concrete measures to tackle issues around concentration limits for pharmaceutical residues in water and soil, and transparency in pharmaceutical supply chains. We hope that EU leaders will take on these challenges in future legislative proposals in order to protect environmental and human health.”

- Will Clark, Executive Director of HCWH Europe

We urge the EC to introduce binding measures that force pharmaceutical companies operating in the EU to increase the transparency of their manufacturing practices and improve consistency along their supply chains. This will help prevent the current practice of companies importing active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) from developing countries with weaker environmental standards and regulatory systems than those in force in the EU.

HCWH Europe is also deeply concerned that the Strategic Approach doesn’t include a clear solution to the potential environmental impact caused by pharmaceuticals for human use authorised prior to 2006. The EC should take the lead in providing a complete assessment for these medicinal products in order to swiftly bridge the knowledge gap.

In light of the EU commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 (which aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), it is also regrettable that the Strategic Approach doesn’t feature concrete proposals to set legally binding concentration limits and standards for residues of pharmaceutical substances in water.

HCWH Europe welcomes the proposal to allocate R&D funding to support the development of green pharmaceuticals but also recommends that the EC develops and promotes guidelines on how to identify and design such "green pharmaceuticals” to ensure a consistent approach.

We also welcome the proposals to increase awareness and promote the prudent use of pharmaceuticals. Educating and training healthcare professionals about the environmental impact of medicines could have a huge impact on procurement and prescription practices, positively impacting consumption and patients’ disposal behaviour. This has the potential to reduce pharmaceutical pollution all along their life cycle.

The Strategic Approach is undoubtedly a step forward after years of delay, but it needs to develop as part of a larger, more comprehensive legislative framework, which tackles pharmaceutical pollution comprehensively. This framework must include ambitious and binding measures to mitigate the increasingly serious impact of pharmaceuticals in the environment throughout their life cycle.

HCWH Europe therefore calls on EU leaders to build on this communication and take comprehensive actions to fully phase out pharmaceutical pollution.


Notes to Editors

HCWH Europe is a non-profit European coalition of hospitals, healthcare systems, healthcare professionals, local authorities, research/academic institutions and environmental and health organisations. It currently has 88 members in 25 countries from the WHO European region, including 16 EU member states. HCWH Europe works to transform the healthcare sector worldwide so that it becomes more ecologically sustainable and a leading advocate for environmental health and justice across the globe. We bring the voice of healthcare professionals to the European policy debate about key issues such as chemicals, climate change and health, green building, sustainable procurement, pharmaceuticals, sustainable food and waste management.