- India ranks third, worldwide, for pharmaceutical production by volume. It produces 60% of the world’s vaccines and 20% of generic medicines. However, there is growing evidence that pharmaceuticals pollute the air, water and soil.
- Chemical compounds from drugs enter the environment through untreated wastewater discharged from manufacturing facilities, through human and animal excreta, farming practices and through improper disposal of unused or expired medicines by consumers.
- Studies point out that regulating India’s pharmaceutical industry should be a priority.
Pharmaceutical drugs are widely used in healthcare to prevent and treat diseases. There are pills, syrups, or shots for almost every known health concern. However, there is growing evidence that pharmaceuticals pollute the air, water and soil. They persist in the environment for long periods and become Environmentally Persistent Pharmaceutical Pollutants or EPPPs.
How do pharmaceutical products become pollutants?
Humans and animals, globally, consume over 100,000 tonnes of pharmaceutical products every year. That’s about the volume of 500 blue whales.
Chemical compounds from these drugs enter the environment in three primary ways – through wastewater discharged from manufacturing facilities, through human and animal excreta and farming practices, and through improper disposal of unused or expired medicines by consumers.
Some of these compounds don’t easily break down through natural processes like sunlight. Antibiotics, hormones, and pain relievers fall in this category.
Ironically, one of the drug components that becomes particularly harmful to the environment is the very thing that makes medicines work – the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients or APIs. These ingredients affect the biological processes of the consumer in a way that impacts their bodily functions to help fight off sickness or reduce pain.
There are over 4,000 APIs used by the pharmaceutical industry to make medicines for 8.1 billion people and even more livestock. Due to unsafe manufacturing processes, usage and improper disposal, these APIs are now in our drinking water, sewage, rivers, oceans, and soil. Globally, over 600 different APIs have been detected in the environment.
What are the health impacts of pharmaceutical pollution?
Psychiatric drugs found in marine and freshwater habitats have been shown to alter the social and foraging behaviour of fish. Endocrine disrupting drugs affect the reproductive ability of fish and even reported to increase the risk of breast cancer in humans.
One of the most significant impacts of increased use of antimicrobials is the creation of microscopic Frankenstein’s monsters – Antimicrobial Resistance or AMR. AMR occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change over time and no longer respond to medicines, making infections harder to treat.
Ramanan Laxminarayanan, founder and president of One Health Trust explains, “Many pharmaceutical companies that manufacture antibiotics don’t treat the effluent which means that the effluent coming out from the industrial plant contains antibiotics. These antibiotics then make their way into natural water bodies…and when they are in these lakes and ponds, they are killing off sensitive bacteria, and they are allowing only resistant bacteria to survive, which then means that we are creating antibiotic resistance in natural reservoirs. So, clearly this is not a sustainable practice because the manufacture of antibiotics is itself contributing to the destruction of the curing ability of antibiotics.”
AMR is so serious that WHO lists it among the ‘top 10’ threats to global health. Nearly 1.27 million people died globally in 2019 due to antibiotic-resistant infections. In India, over 56,000 children die in their first month each year due to AMR.
How can we minimise pharma pollution?
Studies point out that regulating India’s pharmaceutical industry should be a priority. Laxminarayanan shares, “We can address it by following global norms for good manufacturing practices and not allowing untreated effluent to flow into natural water bodies. But many companies in India continue this practice and it’s extremely harmful to the health of the population…Now, they all think of it as just a cost for the manufacturing. Therefore, they don’t want to take on the cost. And they continue doing what they’re doing. So, it’s both an enforcement issue, but also an appropriate behaviour or ethical behaviour (issue) on the part of the antibiotic manufacturers.”
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Banner image: Improper disposal of unused or expired medicines by consumers, leads to pharmaceutical pollution. Photo by Karolina Grabowska/Pexels.