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Medicines polluting the environment: EU Commission looks at policy options

In 2014 CHEM Trust published a detailed study of the increasing evidence that human and veterinary medicines are damaging wildlife.

Three years later, the European Commission has just completed a consultation on a proposed “Strategic approach” to pharmaceuticals in the environment.

CHEM Trust’s response to this consultation argues that the “issue of pharmaceuticals in the environment is a neglected policy area and stricter regulatory action is long overdue“. We also make some specific policy recommendations.

The author of CHEM Trust’s 2014 report, Gwynne Lyons, Director of Policy at CHEM Trust, said at the time:

“Most people would probably be surprised that in general they excrete between 30-90% of any medicine they take. With so many medicines now being found in our rivers, action on all fronts is needed to protect wildlife and drinking water.”

She added:

“The long term implications of many highly active medicines in our environment may come back to haunt us. The current situation is mind-boggling with fish contaminated with the birth control pill, antidepressants (such as Prozac), sedatives, antibiotics, painkillers, anti-cancer drugs and goodness knows what else.”

The report also points out that otters in the UK have been found to be contaminated with pharmaceuticals, while populations of vultures in India were devastated by the use of Diclofenac in cattle.

It also points out the lack of control and monitoring of this pollution: for instance, 613 pharmaceuticals have been reported in the environment worldwide, but analytical detection methods were not even available for many of the thousands of medicines in use.

The European Commission’s consultation on pharmaceuticals in the environment

The Commission’s consultation on pharmaceuticals in the environment, which closed on 21st February, sought “views on possible actions to address the risks from pharmaceuticals in the environment.”

In CHEM Trust’s response we put forward some policies that could help reduce environmental pollution from pharmaceuticals in the environment, including:

  • Strengthening the environmental aspects of the EU system for authorising medicines, including better testing and more consideration of environmental impacts, for example whether the chemicals will persist in the environment or accumulate in wildlife.
  • Ensuring the least environmentally damaging pharmaceuticals are used,.
  • Reducing wastage, in particular reducing usage of veterinary medicines in agriculture and aquaculture.
  • Encouraging the public to reduce unnecessary consumption of medicines and to take-back unwanted drugs to pharmacies so that they can be disposed of properly, not down the toilet.
  • Improving sewage treatment to remove pharmaceutical pollution from wastewater.
  • Strengthen the monitoring of, and the standards for, pharmaceuticals in (i) drinking water, (ii) sewage sludge, (iii) food and (iv) the environment.

CHEM Trust’s Head of Science, Ninja Reineke, said:

“We welcome the fact that the EU Commission is looking at specific measures to better control human and veterinary medicines in the environment.

The current situation with fish, other wildlife and drinking water being contaminated with birth control pills, painkillers and other medicines needs to be urgently addressed.”