Drug pollution

Drug pollution or pharmaceutical pollution is pollution of the environment with pharmaceutical drugs and their metabolites, which reach the aquatic environment (groundwater, rivers, lakes, and oceans) through wastewater. Drug pollution is therefore mainly a form of water pollution.

"Pharmaceutical pollution is now detected in waters throughout the world," said a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.[1] "Causes include aging infrastructure, sewage overflows and agricultural runoff. Even when wastewater makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren't equipped to remove pharmaceuticals."[1]

Sources and effectsEdit

Most simply from the drugs having been cleared and excreted in the urine. The portion that comes from expired or unneeded drugs that are flushed unused down the toilet is smaller, but it is also important, especially in hospitals (where its magnitude is greater than in residential contexts). This includes drug molecules that are too small to be filtered out by existing water treatment plants. The process of upgrading existing plants to use advanced oxidation processes that are able to remove these molecules can be expensive. Drugs such as antidepressants have been found in the United States Great Lakes. Researchers from the University of Buffalo have found high traces of antidepressants in the brains of fish. Fish behavior on antidepressants have been noted to have similar impacts and reducing risk-averse behavior, and thereby reducing survival through predation.[2][3]

Other sources include agricultural runoff (because of antibiotic use in livestock) and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Drug pollution is implicated in the sex effects of water pollution. It is a suspected a contributor (besides industrial pollution) in fish kills, amphibian dieoffs, and amphibian pathomorphology.

Pollution of Water SystemsEdit

In the early 1990s, pharmaceuticals were found to be present in the environment, which resulted in massive scientific research, new regulations, and public attention.[4] Also during the 1990s, it was discovered that for the synthesis of one kilogram of an active pharmaceutical compound the amount of waste produced was fifty to hundred times that one kilogram,[5] which was ending up in the environment. During the late 1990s, estrogens were discovered in wastewater. It was concluded that this was the cause of feminization of fish. This was another factor that caused greater attention to pharmaceuticals in the environment.[6] Reviews and information on pharmaceuticals present in the environment date back to at least the 1980s.[7] The majority of pharmaceuticals are intended to cause slight adverse effects for the target population.[4] Low concentrations of pharmaceuticals can have negative effects on the freshwater ecosystems.[8]

Pharmaceuticals in the EnvironmentEdit

In the United States, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom over 101 different pharmaceuticals were present in ground water, surface water, drinking water or tap water. Between 30 and 100 different pharmaceuticals were found present in the aforementioned waters in Thailand, Canada, Australia, India, China, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, France and Brazil.[9]

The excretion of Oral contraceptivesinto freshwater ecosystems has caused fish and amphibians to feminize.[8]

Antipsychotics were created about seventy years ago and it was not until 2007 that it was reported that antipsychotics were present in the environment. They are used to treat a plethora of illnesses including depression, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disease. Antipsychotics, once excreted by the patient by either feces or urine, travel to wastewater treatment plants, which does not remove the drugs and their metabolites. These drugs have been found in drinking water, all bodies of water, and hospital sewage. Once they reach the aquatic environment, they possibly undergo bioconcentration and bioaccumulation through the food web.[10]

Psychiatric drugs, such as fluoxetine, sertraline, citalopram, chlorpromazine and oxazepram, were found to change fish behavior and caused disruption in the hormones of fish. In invertebrates, these drugs were found to cause reproduction toxicity and hormone disruption and alter their behavior.[9]

Antineoplastic drugs are employed during chemotherapy all over the world. They pollute water courses and have 'mutagenic, cytostatic, and ecotoxicological effects on the micro-organisms that are in the aquatic environment.' The wastewater treatment process is not able to remove antineoplastic drugs due to the intractable nature of them. Bodies of water that are contaminated with antineoplastic drugs possess grave consequences on the aquatic environment and even human health.[11] Chemotherapy drugs such as cyclophosphamide 1, fluorouracil, doxorubicin, cisplatin and mitomycin C were discovered to cause genotoxicityin aquatic organisms.[9]

Antibiotics are widely produced and consumed to treat bacterial and fungal diseases. Since antibiotics are only partially metabolized, the non-metabolized antibiotics are released into the environment. Due to this, antibiotics are discovered in sludge, drinking water, wastewater, surface water, soil, groundwater and sediments. Residual antibiotics are not easily biodegraded so, they can survive in environments for long periods of time. There is an urgent push to eradicate antibiotics from the environment because they could cause a generation of antibiotics resistance bacteria and antibiotics resistance genes, which would pose an immense threat to the ecological system and human health.[12] The excessive use and excretion of antibiotics to waterways makes the problem of antimicrobial resistance worse and will gradually affect the human population, possibly causing more deaths.[8] Antibiotics were found to reduce growth in algae, aquatic plants and environmental bacteria.[9]


Drug pollution still reminds to be a global problem, since current policy techniques are not adequate enough. Most policy approaches remain to be individualized, expensive, and reactive.[8] Biomarkers could be extremely helpful in the risk assessment of pharmaceuticals for decision making in regulations. Biomarkers could help explain if a non-target organism was exposed to a pharmaceutical and the toxicity levels of the pharmaceutical in the organism if it is present.[4]

The main action for preventing drug pollution is to incinerate unwanted pharmaceutical drugs. Burning them chemically degrades their active molecules, with few exceptions. The resulting ash can be further processed before landfilling, such as to remove and recycle any heavy metals that may be present.[citation needed]

There are now programs in many cities that provide collection points at places including drug stores, grocery stores, and police stations. People can bring their unwanted pharmaceuticals there for safe disposal, instead of flushing them (externalizing them to the waterways) or throwing them in the trash (externalizing them to a landfill, where they can become leachate).

Another aspect of drug pollution prevention is environmental law and regulation, although this faces the problems of enforcement costs, enforcement corruption and negligence (see below), and, where enforcement succeeds, increased costs of doing business. The lobbying of pros and cons is ongoing.[13][14]


One extreme example of drug pollution was found in India in 2009 in an area where pharmaceutical manufacturing activity is concentrated.[15] Not all pharmaceutical manufacturing contributes to the problem. In places where environmental law and regulation are adequately enforced, the wastewater from the factories is cleaned to a safe level.[15] But to the extent that the market rewards "looking the other way" in developing nations, whether through local corruption (bribed inspectors or regulators) or plausible deniability, such protections are circumvented. This problem belongs to everyone, because consumers in well-regulated places constitute the biggest customers of the factories that operate in the inadequately regulated or inspected places, meaning that externality is involved.


  1. ^ a b HealthDay News journalists, "Antihistamines Adding to Drug Pollution in Streams", U.S. News.
  2. ^ "Antidepressants are finding their way into fish brains". The Economist. Retrieved 2018-03-18.
  3. ^ Martin, Jake M.; Saaristo, Minna; Bertram, Michael G.; Lewis, Phoebe J.; Coggan, Timothy L.; Clarke, Bradley O.; Wong, Bob B.M. (March 2017). "The psychoactive pollutant fluoxetine compromises antipredator behaviour in fish". Environmental Pollution. 222: 592–599. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2016.10.010. ISSN 0269-7491. PMID 28063712.
  4. ^ a b c Ankley, Gerald T.; Brooks, Bryan W.; Huggett, Duane B.; Sumpter, and John P. (December 2007). "Repeating History: Pharmaceuticals in the Environment". Environmental Science & Technology. 41 (24): 8211–8217. Bibcode:2007EnST...41.8211A. doi:10.1021/es072658j. ISSN 0013-936X. PMID 18200843.
  5. ^ Kümmerer, Klaus (2010-11-21). "Pharmaceuticals in the Environment". Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 35 (1): 57–75. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-052809-161223. ISSN 1543-5938.
  6. ^ Larsson, D. G. Joakim (2014-11-19). "Pollution from drug manufacturing: review and perspectives". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 369 (1656): 20130571. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0571. ISSN 0962-8436. PMC 4213584. PMID 25405961.
  7. ^ Murray-Smith, Richard J; Coombe, Vyvyan T; Grönlund, Marie Haag; Waern, Fredrik; Baird, James A (2012-01-13). "Managing emissions of active pharmaceutical ingredients from manufacturing facilities: An environmental quality standard approach". Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. 8 (2): 320–330. doi:10.1002/ieam.1268. ISSN 1551-3777. PMID 22057894.
  8. ^ a b c d "Pharmaceutical Residues in Freshwater : Hazards and Policy Responses | OECD iLibrary" Check |url= value (help). .. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  9. ^ a b c d "Pharmaceutical Residues in Freshwater : Hazards and Policy Responses | OECD iLibrary" Check |url= value (help). .. Retrieved 2021-04-12.
  10. ^ Escudero, J.; Muñoz, J.L.; Morera-Herreras, T.; Hernandez, R.; Medrano, J.; Domingo-Echaburu, S.; Barceló, D.; Orive, G.; Lertxundi, U. (May 2021). "Antipsychotics as environmental pollutants: An underrated threat?". Science of the Total Environment. 769: 144634. Bibcode:2021ScTEn.769n4634E. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144634. ISSN 0048-9697. PMID 33485196.
  11. ^ Yadav, Ankush; Rene, Eldon R.; Mandal, Mrinal Kanti; Dubey, Kashyap Kumar (January 2021). "Threat and sustainable technological solution for antineoplastic drugs pollution: Review on a persisting global issue". Chemosphere. 263: 128285. Bibcode:2021Chmsp.263l8285Y. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2020.128285. ISSN 0045-6535. PMID 33297229.
  12. ^ Wang, Jianlong; Zhuan, Run; Chu, Libing (January 2019). "The occurrence, distribution and degradation of antibiotics by ionizing radiation: An overview". Science of the Total Environment. 646: 1385–1397. Bibcode:2019ScTEn.646.1385W. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.07.415. ISSN 0048-9697. PMID 30235624.
  13. ^ Gilbert, Natasha (2012-11-21), "Drug-pollution law all washed up: EU initiative to clean up waterways faces tough opposition", Nature News, 491 (7425): 503–504, doi:10.1038/491503a, PMID 23172189.
  14. ^ Editorial board (2012-11-21), "Water wars: environmental protections must not wait until a population is about to disappear", Nature, 491 (7425): 496, doi:10.1038/491496a, PMID 23189323.
  15. ^ a b Mason, Margie (2009-01-26), "World's Highest Drug Pollution Levels Found In Indian Stream", Huffington Post.

3. G.Vijay “Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals in South India: Sun-Rise Industrialisation or Global Cost Shifting of Dirty Goods Manufacturing”, in Hans Lofgren and Prakash Sarangi (eds) (2009) The Politics and Culture of Globalisation: India and Australia, Social Science Press, New Delhi.

6. G.Vijay ‘Systemic Failure of Regulation: The Political Economy of Pharmaceutical and Bulk Drug Manufacturing’ in Hans Lofgren (ed) (2013)The politics of the pharmaceutical industry and access to medicines : world pharmacy and India, Social Science Press, New Delhi.

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