Valisure intern Elysee Barakett is a Junior at Greenwich Academy. When she’s not playing soccer, volunteering, or playing with her dog, she’s looking forward to a career in science.
From production to packaging, to the transport and consumer usage of medications, the pharmaceutical industry continues to harm the environment. While the effects of this problem have become increasingly apparent in various ecosystems, little has been done to minimize the industry’s environmental impact.
It’s a common misconception that a drug’s effects end after we use it, but its life cycle continues to our detriment. Digested medications can enter waterways, be consumed by other organisms, enter agriculture, and hurt the balance of certain ecosystems when improperly disposed. However, even with more than 100 million Americans using prescription medications, there is little awareness about this problem. Before a prescription medication even makes it to the shelf of a pharmacy, it has already adversely impacted the environment through its production and global transportation.
All factories, not just ones manufacturing pharmaceuticals, are responsible for the majority of pollution. Factories produce many byproducts such as harmful gases that pollute the air or toxins that contaminate water.
The packaging of medications is equally harmful to the environment. While it is important that pharmaceuticals must be packaged correctly in order to help ensure the quality of the medication, companies continue to use packaging that is more harmful to the environment than alternate forms. Packages need to be designed in ways that limit amounts of residue, while still protecting what is inside; as a result, the environmental impact is not always taken into account. For example, aluminum blisters are the most environmentally destructive due to both the manufacturing process and the amount of waste they produce; however, they may be the most inexpensive option for the protection of certain types of medications. By prioritizing profit over environmental impact, drug production facilities have failed to realize the harm they cause to the environment.
Digested drugs that enter waterways can cause serious damage to the environment. Digested medications enter waterways through sweat and urine. If this waste is not properly treated, remnants of drugs can directly enter the environment. Drugs that are especially harmful include antidepressants, oral contraceptives, and other medications that can alter the balance of hormones in the body and mimic hormones or other signaling molecules in natural environments.
Human hormones impact water species
Upon entering waterways, these drugs can easily be redigested by other animals and change their homeostasis. One example of this is the male river fish population in Britain becoming more feminine due to the increased levels of hormones in the water from oral contraceptives. This change in the river fish population could be detrimental, as the mutation prevents the fish from breeding normally. This problem will cause the population to diminish over time and make the species more susceptible to extinction. Charles Tyler, an environmental biologist at the University of Exeter, has researched how escalating alterations in the environment has disrupted the natural chemical processes in fish. When one species decreases in population or goes extinct, the food web is disrupted and the whole ecosystem suffers.
Millions of Americans are being overprescribed medications and facing higher levels of addiction. With this increase in prescriptions comes an increase of contamination in waterways.
The harmful impact of bioaccumulation
The pharmaceutical industry’s effects on the environment will not go unnoticed. Even though a drug may only affect one species directly, it will indirectly hurt the whole ecosystem. In aquatic environments, bioaccumulation, the growing accumulation of toxic substances in organisms, will cause environmental damage, economic strain and insecurity for food industries.
Undissolved medications may be the most harmful to animals, as they contain a much higher dosage than those dissolved in urine. In the study, “Your Medication May Not be Dissolving Properly,” by the Valisure Team, it was found that 33% of the ibuprofen tested did not pass their dissolution test. Valisure has tested many other medications as well and has seen similarly concerning results. These medications with low dissolution underscore the importance of drug quality. In many cases, some people might stop taking poor quality medications and thereby dispose of those prescriptions improperly; poor quality medications don’t just hurt the user, but they also contribute to higher amounts of waste.
The air pollution produced by factories- along with the various modes of transportation used when shipping drugs- have heightened the rates of developing respiratory conditions among people in all locations; some of these conditions include lung cancer and asthma.
Biomagnification – from small water species to the large mammals who consume fish
Another impact the pharmaceutical industry has on humans is through the contamination of waterways. Although this issue may seem to only affect marine life, the biomagnification of these toxins actually harms those at the top of the food chain: humans. Humans consume animals that have remnants of medications, as well as plants that may contain toxins. In developing countries, sewage waste is an easy source for fertilization; if untreated waste enters agriculture sites, it could easily enter into produce and be consumed by humans and animals. Medications can also enter produce when contaminated runoff or groundwater enters agricultural sites. Runoffs have also contributed to the high amount of contaminated waste in agriculture and waterways, as they carry waste from drains or sewers directly to rivers and streams.
Medications that get into the waterways can even flow into local water supplies. Since water treatment centers are not continually checking for medications in the water, traces of contaminants may go unnoticed and into the homes of thousands of other people. Due to the growing rate of pharmaceutical production and use, people need to be more aware of the contamination of waterways to protect themselves and the world around them.
Sustainable manufacturing and safe disposal of medications — not too much to ask!
We should promote more sustainable manufacturing as well as proper disposal to prevent waterway contamination. However, if we really want to help this problem, we need to look at the root cause: the overprescription of drugs in America. If the rise in drug usage and production waste is harming the environment, then what is causing the rise? Why do we need so many drugs? Who is benefiting from these prescription drugs? Is our tendency to do what is easiest by taking more prescriptions rather than getting to the root of the problem worth destroying our planet?
Similar to how fair trade goods are marked with particular certifications, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could award the most environmentally cautious drug manufacturers with a certificate of sustainability. The majority of millennials are looking for products that come from a just origin. Such recognition would encourage more companies to be environmentally friendly and tell the user a bit about where there drug is from; people should have the ability to know not only how they are affecting the environment, but also what they are actually putting in their bodies. Nevertheless, pharmacies have the ability to purchase the cheapest drugs- that do not have to source where their ingredients are from- without the buyer’s input.
According to the American Rivers organization, one of the most important actions to prevent the contamination of waterways is to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals. Although the EPA warns people not to flush any medications down the toilet, many people are unaware of how to actually get rid of their drugs. By educating people on the effects the pharmaceutical industry has on the environment can help to create more long-term solutions.
Organizations, such as Stericycle or Dispose my Meds, ensure that old pharmaceuticals do not enter waterways by properly neutralizing any drugs. These companies are typically used by hospitals or pharmacies that offer proper disposal services. Pharmacies typically offer take back days twice a year, and some local fire or police departments offer services to properly dispose of drugs.
One household disposal method suggested by the EPA is to add old medications to cat litter or coffee grounds, which will prevent animals from consuming them. Pharmacies should make more of an effort to advertise proper disposal, and local services that promote proper disposal should be more accessible. Still, these are just short term fixes for an inevitable dilemma.
Although this has been an ongoing problem, there has been minimal progress in finding a solution. Animals and humans continue to be hurt by the changes in the environment, and these problems will only worsen unless solutions are put in place now. By getting more people to realize the effect the pharmaceutical industry has on the environment could shift the priorities of drug manufacturers to prioritize more eco friendly practices.
Harris, Richard. “Federal Survey Finds 119 Million Americans Use Prescription Drugs.” NPR, September 08, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/09/08/493157917/federal-survey-finds-119-million-americans-use-prescription-drugs.
 “How Can Factories Affect The Environment?” Field. http://www.field.org.uk/how-can-factories-affect-the-environment/.
 Llano, Gerardo. “Environmental Impact of the pharmaceutical packaging.” Lund: Lund University, 2012. Accessed June 30, 2019.
 Jamieson, Sophie. “Fish Becoming Transgender from Contraceptive Pill Chemicals Being Flushed down Household Drains.” The Telegraph, July 02, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/02/fish-becoming-transgender-contraceptive-pill-chemicals-flushed/.
 “Profile: Biosciences.” University of Exeter. http://biosciences.exeter.ac.uk/staff/profile/index.php?web_id=charles_tyler.
 “Overprescribed: High Cost Isn’t America’s Only Drug Problem.” STAT, April 01, 2019, https://www.statnews.com/2019/04/02/overprescribed-americas-other-drug-problem/.
 “Bioaccumulation.” ScienceDirect Topics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/bioaccumulation.
 “Your Medication May Not Be Dissolving Properly – The Valisure Notebook.” Valisure, February 28, 2019, https://www.valisure.com/blog/valisure-notebook/medication-not-dissolving-properly/.
 “How Can Factories Affect The Environment?”
 “The Environmental Impact of Drugs.” Emagazine.com, July 19, 2018. https://emagazine.com/environmental-impact-of-drugs/.
 The United States Environmental Protection Agency. “How to Dispose of Medicines Properly.” EPA, 2011. Accessed June 29, 2019.
 Shoenthal, Amy. “What Exactly Is Fair Trade, And Why Should We Care?” Forbes, December 14, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyschoenberger/2018/12/14/what-exactly-is-fair-trade-and-why-should-we-care/#eec44f57894c.
 “Pharmaceuticals in the Water Supply.” American Rivers. https://www.americanrivers.org/threats-solutions/clean-water/pharmaceuticals-personal-care/.
 The United States Environmental Protection Agency. “How to Dispose of Medicines Properly.”
 The United States Environmental Protection Agency. “How to Dispose of Medicines Properly.”
“Bioaccumulation.” ScienceDirect Topics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/bioaccumulation.
“Environmental Impact.” Dispose My Medicine. http://disposemymeds.org/environmental-impact/.
“The Environmental Impact of Drugs.” Emagazine.com. July 19, 2018. https://emagazine.com/environmental-impact-of-drugs/.
Harris, Richard. “Federal Survey Finds 119 Million Americans Use Prescription Drugs.” NPR. September 08, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/09/08/493157917/federal-survey-finds-119-million-americans-use-prescription-drugs.
“How Can Factories Affect The Environment?” Field. http://www.field.org.uk/how-can-factories-affect-the-environment/.
Johnston, Ian. “Male Fish Are Becoming Female Because of Birth Control in the Waters.” The Independent. July 03, 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/environment-fish-changing-sex-gender-chemicals-pollution-rivers-water-charles-tyler-fisheries-a7821086.html.
Jamieson, Sophie. “Fish Becoming Transgender from Contraceptive Pill Chemicals Being Flushed down Household Drains.” The Telegraph. July 02, 2017. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/02/fish-becoming-transgender-contraceptive-pill-chemicals-flushed/.
Lazarus, David. “Where Do Prescription Drugs Come From? Good Luck Answering That Question.” Los Angeles Times. May 15, 2018. https://www.latimes.com/business/lazarus/la-fi-lazarus-drugs-country-of-origin-20180515-story.html.
Llano, Gerardo. “Environmental Impact of the pharmaceutical packaging.” Lund:
Lund University, 2012. Accessed June 30, 2019.
“Overprescribed: High Cost Isn’t America’s Only Drug Problem.” STAT. April 01, 2019. https://www.statnews.com/2019/04/02/overprescribed-americas-other-drug-problem/.
“Pharmaceuticals in the Water Supply.” American Rivers. https://www.americanrivers.org/threats-solutions/clean-water/pharmaceuticals-personal-care/.
“Profile: Biosciences.” University of Exeter. http://biosciences.exeter.ac.uk/staff/profile/index.php?web_id=charles_tyler.
Shoenthal, Amy. “What Exactly Is Fair Trade, And Why Should We Care?” Forbes. December 14, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyschoenberger/2018/12/14/what-exactly-is-fair-trade-and-why-should-we-care/#eec44f57894c.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency. “How to Dispose of
Medicines Properly.” EPA, 2011. Accessed June 29, 2019.
“Your Medication May Not Be Dissolving Properly – The Valisure Notebook.” Valisure. February 28, 2019. https://www.valisure.com/blog/valisure-notebook/medication-not-dissolving-properly/.