The detrimental impact on the environment from pharmaceuticals has been much reported on in recent years, particularly as these have been exacerbated by population growth, ageing populations and increased per capita consumption of medication.

Green pharma future

Residues from pharmaceutical products enter the environment during their manufacture, use (or disposal) and accumulate in surface and ground water, drinking water, soil and in animal tissues.

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This may have direct toxic effects on wildlife or alter animal behaviour, compromising the ability of some species to survive or to reproduce.

The release of residues from antimicrobial drugs may also accelerate the development, maintenance and spread of resistant bacteria and fungi – a phenomenon that could claim 10 million lives per year by 2050 if current trends continue.

This underlines the need for collaborative action to reduce environmental pollution from pharmaceuticals across a range of stakeholders including the pharmaceutical and water industries, medical professionals and consumers.

The European Commission (EC) has outlined a set of actions to address the challenges that pharmaceutical use poses to the environment.

The long-awaited ‘Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment’ communication, which was originally scheduled for release in 2015, identifies six action areas where improvements can be made.

Research funding

These include plans for the EC to collaborate with the pharma industry and fund research to support the development of greener pharmaceuticals that more readily degrade to harmless substances.

Other key action areas include proposals to improve data monitoring, reduce emissions from manufacturing, reduce waste by optimising packaging and safely extending drug expiry dates.

However, while the release represents an important development, critics including organisations such as Health Care Without Harm and the European Public Health Alliance have emphasised that key proposals documented in earlier drafts have been diluted.

In particular, a plan to have environmental criteria for antibiotic use included in international agreements as good manufacturing practice requirements has been removed, which is likely to weaken the EC’s ability to effectively tackle antimicrobial resistance.