Pharmaceuticals in the environment pose a global challenge

Hundreds of active substances and degradation products contaminate water and soil almost worldwide

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Pharmaceuticals in the environment pose a global challenge
Source: Les Cuncliffe /

A research project on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency has shown the magnitude of the contamination of the environment by pharmaceuticals: traces of more than 630 different pharmaceutical ingredients and their degradation products have been recorded in many regions of the earth. They can be found in water, soil, sludge and organisms. The occurrence of the painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac is very high. Its active substance has been found in the waters of 50 different countries. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is reviewing whether “pharmaceuticals in the environment“ should be taken up as a new international field of action in the SAICM international chemicals policy framework. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and the Federal Ministry for the Environment are organising an international pharmaceuticals workshop on 8-9 April 2014 in Geneva in support of the initiative. UBA’s Acting President Thomas Holzmann said, “The Federal Environment Agency now has verifiable proof that pharmaceutical residues in the environment are a significant problem all over the world. We can only solve the problem on a global scale if we promote international chemicals safety, for example within the international SAICM policy framework. Our four-year research project, which has analysed and shed light on the state of knowledge about pharmaceuticals in the environment, is a step in that direction.”

High concentrations of pharmaceutical residues have been measured not only in the bodies of water of industrialised countries but also in those of many developing and emerging countries. Initial results of the UBA project report that over 630 different pharmaceutical active substances and their degradation products have been traced in the environment worldwide. There are 17 substances which occurred in every region of the world. The greatest amount of available data up to now is on the painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. Its active substance has been detected in the bodies of water of 50 different countries in all. In 35 of these countries the measured concentrations in water exceeded 0.1 micrograms per litre – a figure close to the concentration determined in laboratory tests at which damage to fish was observed. This level has also been considered as a quality standard for surface water in the EU. The EU Member States have now agreed to take regular measurements of the concentrations of this substance and to develop countermeasures for the event that the level is exceeded. In addition to the 'blockbuster' diclofenac, some of the other widespread substances around the world include the antiepileptic drug carbamazepine, the painkiller ibuprofen, the contraceptive hormone ethinylestradiol and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.

Data availability on the occurrence of pharmaceuticals in the environment for Germany, the other EU countries, North America and China has improved markedly in recent years. In contrast, little was known about the global situation. Whereas there is plentiful information and publications on the countries in Western Europe, it is lacking for Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In particular, public information on contamination of the environment in some of the leading producer countries such as India was virtually unavailable.

Sixty 60 experts from science, non-governmental organisations, politics and industry will be discussing measures for the effective reduction of the worldwide input of pharmaceuticals to the environment at an international workshop which is being held in Geneva on 8 - 9 April. The UBA research project will serve to enshrine ‘pharmaceuticals in the environment’ in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as a new emerging issue under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management SAICM. Specific measures with global applicability will follow if the endeavour is successful.

Further information:

Pharmaceuticals in the environment

The primary path to the environment for human drugs is domestic wastewater. The drugs are usually not fully broken down after ingestion and are subsequently excreted. Wastewater treatment plants often do not have the capacity to filter out all pharmaceutical residues. Where wastewater treatment plants are absent these substances have a direct pathway into bodies of water, where they cause harm to plants and animals. Veterinary drugs enter soil and water primarily via the slurry and manure of treated animals. There is little information up to now about the long term effect of these substances on ecosystems, but both laboratory and field experiments have proven such negative effects as reduced growth, behavioural changes or decreased reproductive capacity of organisms in the environment.

Hormones, antiparasitics and certain painkillers have emerged as particularly relevant to the environment since they are ecotoxic in even the smallest concentrations and are also very persistent.

Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)

SAICM is an international, UN-led policy framework to promote chemical safety around the world. Its objective is, by 2020, for chemicals to be produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

Research project

“Global Relevance of Pharmaceuticals in the Environment" is a research project by the IWW Water Centre in Mülheim an der Ruhr and adelphi consult GmbH in Berlin on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency. The project represents a systematic analysis of the current state of knowledge on the worldwide occurrence of pharmaceuticals in the environment. The IWW evaluated over 1,000 scientific publications and other sources from more than 70 different countries. It conducted interviews with experts from various countries. The first summary of this data has been reported according to region and published on the project webpage. The research project started in 2012 and will run until the middle of 2015.

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