Pharmaceutical Pollution: FAQ

The pollution of water and soil with pharmaceutical residues has been recognised by the European Union asan emerging environmental concern.” The European Commission is currently developing a Strategic Approach to the pollution of water and soil by pharmaceuticals, which will be released on 13 September 2015. Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Europe campaign for UPSTREAM and PREVENTATIVE measures to be introduced, which will help reduce pollution. 

Frequently asked questions about pharmaceutical pollution

Click a question below to find out the answer:

How does pharmaceutical pollution occur?

What is being done about pharmaceutical pollution at EU level?

How should I dispose of medicine?

How can medical professionals help?

Where can I learn more about pharmaceutical pollution?

How does pharmaceutical pollution occur?

Hundreds of different pharmaceuticals have been detected in environmental compartments globally. Pharmaceuticals can enter the environment in a variety of ways:

  • Manufacturing emissions
  • Human consumption and excretion of pharmaceutical products
  • Improper disposal of pharmaceuticals down toilets and sinks

The active ingredients of pharmaceuticals are designed to stimulate a response in humans and animals, and some are engineered so that they remain unchanged during their passage through the body. Unfortunately, this stability means that they also persist outside the body and, as a consequence, can have therapeutic effects on non-target organisms and build up in the environment.

Pharmaceuticals that enter the environment can have unexpected harmful effects on wildlife. One of the worst cases of wildlife poisoning by a chemical has been attributed to a pharmaceutical product: Diclofenac. This anti-inflammatory non-steroidal drug (NSAID), caused a 97% decline in 3 species of Old World vultures (genus Gyps) in Asia, with risk of extinction. Vultures feeding on carcasses of cattle treated with diclofenac suffered acute kidney failure and died within days. 

Pharmaceuticals in the environment may also pose a concern to human health. Although the concentrations of pharmaceuticals may be low, exposure to mixtures of pharmaceuticals with other chemicals could pose a risk to human health. Synergistic effects can intensify therapeutic properties and even low concentrations can be dangerous to people for whom a medicine has been contraindicated.

What is being done about pharmaceutical pollution at EU level?

Pharmaceutical pollution is addressed peripherally in certain EU legislation such as the Directive on medicine for human use and the Water Framework Directive. 

By 13 September 2015, the European Commission will create a strategic approach to the pollution of water by pharmaceutical substances “which will include proposals enabling, to the extent necessary, the environmental impacts of medicines to be taken into account more effectively in the procedure for placing medicinal products on the market.” 

By 14 September 2017, as a follow up to the strategic approach, the Commission will propose measures to be taken to address the environmental impacts of pharmaceutical substances, “with a view to reducing discharges, emissions and losses of such substances into the aquatic environment, taking into account public health needs and the cost-effectiveness of the measures proposed.” 

How should I dispose of medicine?

Most Member States of the EU have implemented collection systems for unused and expired medicines. Find out how to return unwanted medicines in your local area by asking a pharmacist.  But always remember: never put medicine down the toilet or sink.

How can medical professionals help?

Read How Doctors Can Reduce Pharmaceutical Pollution. This explains how pharmaceuticals reach the environment and the potential risks to wildlife and human health. The leaflet also advises healthcare professionals on altering prescription practices and educating patients on safer disposal of unused and expired medicines.

Where can I learn more about pharmaceutical pollution? – The Pharmaceuticals in the Environment Resource Centre is an open-access database of resources to increase public understanding of the issues revolving around pharmaceuticals in the environment and to highlight ways to reduce their impact by promoting critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship. The database contains scientific articles, reports, fact sheets and more.

PIE Debate Event Report –  In October 2014, HCWH Europe and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) held a Joint Debate on PIE. Lawmakers and stakeholders spent the day discussing solutions to pharmaceutical pollution at all stages of the lifecycle. This report is a summary of the debate.

HCWH Europe Position Statement - Find out about the measures that governments and national authorities must take in order to reduce the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals.

PAN Germany's FAQs - Find information on veterinary medicines in the environment (German).

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