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You are here: Home Resources 2015 slider articles THE IMPACT OF PHARMACEUTICAL WASTE ON THE ENVIRONMENT by Helen Gayle



The impact of the pharmaceutical industry, and particularly of the resultant waste, on the environment is such that it is having an increasing and devastating effect on our planet, and one that is for the main part left to go unabated.

America’s drug-dependent society

We live in an increasingly drug-dependent society. Whether through legal or illegal drug use, the fact is that more and more individuals are turning to pharmaceuticals, either to relieve pain or to treat minor or major physical ailments. Recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that an incredible 75.1 per cent of all visits to the physician’s office and 72.5 per cent of all visits to hospital outpatient departments result in medication being either ordered or provided. In any 30-day period, a whopping 48.7 per cent of American individuals have used at least one pharmaceutical drug, and 10.7 per cent have used five or more pharmaceutical drugs. This means that while large and mainstream environment campaigns often may not consider the effect of the pharmaceutical industry on our waterways and other features, such as wastewater treatment plants, this is actually a growing concern and one that is having a greater impact than you might well think. Increased water and soil testing for pharmaceutical traces has found evidence of pharmaceutical environmental poisoning across the globe.

How does pharmaceutical waste enter the environment?

There are two main pathways in which residential, commercial and even agricultural pharmaceuticals issued to livestock can enter the environment. The most common and expected of this is simply in the way in which unwanted or unneeded pharmaceuticals are disposed of. If unused pharmaceuticals are sent to landfill, put into septic tanks or thrown down the sink or toilet so that they end up in the sewerage system, then they quickly contaminate our water supplies and any soil that is moistened with that water. This in turn affects any food that is grown in that soil, and so the waste products resulting from the pharmaceutical industry quickly affect increasing aspects of our society. However, and perhaps more surprisingly, the other way that pharmaceutical waste enters the environment is through excretion. When humans or livestock excrete the drugs that they consume, this immediately enters our sewerage or septic systems and the results are just the same as those outlined above. The combination of these two pathways has led to increased trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in almost all of our water sources.

Many people wrongly assume that wastewater processing centres and treatment plants are able to remove these pharmaceutical traces from the wastewater; however, technology in this area is not advanced enough to do this at present. No matter what level of treatment the wastewater is exposed to, conventional wastewater treatment plants simply cannot remove all traces of pharmaceuticals from our waterways and water sources.

How dangerous are traces of pharmaceuticals in our water?

It is terrifying to think about the traces of unknown pharmaceutical drugs contained within our water, but even scarier that at the present time we have no idea what the short- or long-term effects of these pharmaceuticals in our water systems might be. Research has, however, been conducted on the effects on animals within these environments, and relevant researchers suspect that the hormones from medications and the other pharmaceutical compounds in the water may well be responsible for undesirable new effects on wildlife that are being observed, including the feminisation of male fish, and a sluggish activity or reduced appetite in other wildlife in the same environment.

The effects on these animals then is something that should be avoided and reversed, and it can be inferred that the effects of those same pharmaceutical drug traces on human life could have negative, detrimental impact. More and more unwanted drugs are entering our waste streams every day, and this is causing increased environmental concerns on a year-by-year basis. Only by raising awareness among the public about how their unwanted medication should be disposed of can we begin to change and reverse this worrying trend.