What’s Your Solution To Drugs In The Environment?

A guest post by C&EN European Correspondent Sarah Everts A new paper in PLoS ONE reports some alarming data: Bacteria living in the rivers fed by the waste streams of 90 drug production factories in India have high levels of antibiotic resistance genes. The work, from Joakim Larsson’s group at the University Göteburg, Sweden, was a follow-up to his team’s measurement of fluoroquinolone antibiotic and other active ingredient levels in manufacturing waste streams. In that study, sometimes the drugs turned up at therapeutic concentrations. The research shows that these low--and not so low--levels of antibiotics waste may be exacerbating microbial resistance to drugs we really can’t afford to do without. Larsson’s work is also another data point in the steady stream of reports that the drugs we use are causing side effects in the environment, with consequences ranging from feminization of fish to microbial resistance. So what’s to be done? Mae Wu and Sarah Janssen of the Natural Resources Defense Council recently wrote a snappy, pointed commentary in Environmental Science & Technology that effectively says action on the issue is mostly stalled—or in low gear at best:
Identifying effective and efficient solutions is hampered by the complexity of the problem—multiple sources* contribute, only some of which are regulated, often by multiple federal agencies pursuant to various legal authorities. Furthermore significant data gaps mean that individual sources of contamination point the finger at each other without much substantiation. Advocacy groups, drinking water utilities, and government officials have introduced different initiatives to address this situation resulting in a scattershot of partial solutions rather than an overarching strategy.
I wonder if Wu and Janssen would be encouraged by an email that popped in to my inbox at around the same time as Larsson’s paper: A call for researchers to suggest, by means of a websurvey, any number of pressing research questions that need answering about pharmaceuticals in the environment. The survey is being sponsored by the regulatory agency Health Canada, SETAC pharmaceuticals advisory group and a bit of funding from pharmaceutical companies, but the executors are two researchers at York University in the UK: Alistair Boxall, an environmental chemist who studies drugs in the environment, and Murray Rudd, an environmental economist who has set up similar surveys to prioritize research questions on ecosystem conservation. So go ahead-visit the survey and have your say. Rudd says he’s expecting several hundred questions from the survey which will then be whittled down to 40 top priorities at an upcoming Health Canada-sponsored stakeholders retreat in Southern Ontario. These priorities will be disseminated to policymakers, research funders, and the scientific community. Rudd acknowledges that there’s no guarantee that the priorities will be followed, but he hopes they will provide focus to the community: Something more like an overarching strategy—instead of a scattershot step—to deal with the important issue of pharmaceuticals in the environment. *Wu and Janssen’s description of how the profile of pharmaceuticals in the environment might be improved by relevant stakeholders is worth repeating. Here’s a précis: -Chemists could design drugs that have a better end-of-life profile in the environment -FDA regulators could require more rigorous environmental impact assessments prior to approval -Environmental regulators could insist that companies completely remove active pharmaceutical ingredients from waste streams -Doctors could choose to prescribe drugs with a more environmentally friendly profile when the options exist -Consumers should cease and desist from flushing drugs down the toilet; Those in the agriculture industry should remove antibiotics and growth hormones given to livestock from agricultural waste streams.

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. There’s not a lot of comfortable answers here, but I’ll take option #3 as being the most direct. Reverse osmosis facilities aren’t cheap, though.

  2. Yes, I agree with chemjobber. option 3 is the most direct solution. But the other options are ideal especially the first and second one. It is focused on prevention. Can you discuss any other drug disposal alternatives?


  3. In reference to option #3, it’s worth noting that C&EN covered another recent ES&T paper (DOI 10.1021/es100356f) that found that drugmakers are releasing pharmaceuticals into their waste water at high levels.