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ESG

Call for greener drugs as environmental pollution from pharmaceutical ingredients escalates

Health Industry Hub | June 11, 2024 |

ESG: There is an urgent need for action to combat the contamination of ecosystems by pharmaceuticals. Monash University researchers emphasise the escalating risks posed to biodiversity, ecosystem services, and public health due to pharmaceutical pollution.

Dr Michael Bertram, adjunct at Monash University School of Biological Sciences and Assistant Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, acknowledged the significance of pharmaceuticals in modern healthcare. However, he warned of the detrimental environmental consequences associated with their production, use, and disposal.

“In our increasingly medicated world, pharmaceuticals are indispensable in modern healthcare, having revolutionised disease prevention and treatment,” said Dr Bertram. “However, our growing dependence on pharmaceuticals comes at a major cost.”

“Discharges during drug production, use, and disposal have led to global contamination of ecosystems with mixtures of pharmaceuticals and their breakdown products. In fact, when patients take medicines, only a portion of those drugs are absorbed by the body, with the remainder being excreted and often released directly into the environment,” he added.

The extent of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) pollution was demonstrated in a large-scale study that measured 61 different drugs in river water taken from 1,052 locations across 104 countries, spanning all continents. Around 43% of the sites sampled had levels of at least one drug that exceeded what is considered safe for ecological health.

Through the National Health and Climate Strategy, the government plans to collaborate with states, territories, industry, and suppliers to establish green procurement guidelines for medicines and surgical supplies. However, no funding was allocated in the most recent Federal Budget to drive the Strategy forward.

Professor Bob Wong, Monash University School of Biological Sciences, stated “Evidence has been mounting for decades that trace concentrations of pharmaceutical pollutants and their mixtures can cause severe developmental, physiological, morphological, and behavioural changes in wildlife.

“For example, male fish exposed to oestrogens found in the birth control pill exhibit feminisation and reproductive failure, leading to population collapse, while vultures exposed to anti-inflammatory drugs have undergone severe population crashes due to toxic effects.”

Moreover, the authors revealed the interconnectedness between pharmaceutical pollution and other anthropogenic pressures, such as climate change and habitat destruction, exacerbating the threats to biodiversity and ecosystem stability.

“To address drug pollution, we urgently need to implement strategies to minimise environmental impacts across the entire pharmaceutical life cycle,” commented Dr Lauren May from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. “This includes promoting sustainable prescribing practices, increasing public awareness about the environmental impact of medicines, enhancing wastewater treatment processes, and actively pursuing eco-friendly drug design.”

“Key to tackling this issue at its source is the design of greener pharmaceuticals that degrade more rapidly and completely in the environment” said Dr Manuela Jorg, also from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

The researchers concluded “Appreciating that patient access to pharmaceuticals will remain vital into the future, we urge drug designers and manufacturers, scientists and policymakers to recognise the growing environmental threat posed by APIs and to urgently prioritise the sustainable molecular design of greener drugs to prevent further environmental harm.”

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