Medicine and the environment

Medicines and the environment

Pharmaceutical substances may find their way to the environment – especially after administration and with the waste.  Pharmaceutical companies and the regulations covering the branch seek to ensure that pharmaceutical production would not have any environmental impacts.

Pharmaceutical substance residues in the environment are so small that they have no impact on human health. However, it has been found that pharmaceutical residues may have a negative impact on fish and other aquatic organisms.

Many sources of pharmaceuticals in the environment

Most of the medicines end up in the environment through the sewage network after the medicine has been administered. The pharmaceuticals are washed from the skin with shower water or from the body through the toilet, both ending in sewage. Despite efficient wastewater treatment, all pharmaceutical residuals cannot be removed from the water.

Medicines are also incorrect medicine disposal practices. Medicines may end in sewage or household waste. Disposal of medicines should always take place in the appropriate way.  Expired or non-used medicines must be taken to the pharmacy.

Some of the sewage waste is further treated and used in fertilisation, and minor medicine residues end up in agriculture. The veterinary medicines given to production animals can also cause environmental emissions. In northern European countries, production animals are not medicated just in case but moderately and according to real needs.

Leakages can also take place in the manufacture of medicines. However, manufacturing causes a minimal part of the environmental impacts of medicines.

Strict regulations on environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals

Strict rules - the GMP rules (good manufacturing practice) – apply to the manufacture of medicines. In addition, many pharmaceutical companies have ISO certificates for high-quality operations.

The GMP rules do not address environmental requirements as such. In the EU and the US, the GMP rules and other legislation, however, ensure that the locally manufactured medicines and those imported to these countries are of high quality from the environmental perspective as well.

The situation is not so good globally. Large amounts of medicines are produced outside the EU, with less strict controls. The locally used medicines are not always covered by the same level of control as in the EU.

The environmental impacts of a medicinal product must be reported when the marketing authorisation for the product is applied for. If the medicine is associated with potential environmental impacts, the pharmaceutical company must clarify in its marketing authorisation application how such risks can be limited. Such medicines include, for example, certain products used for gene therapies.

The EU-level legislation focuses increasingly on the impact of medicines, especially as far as waterways are concerned.  Increasing attention is paid to the decrease of emission from pharmaceutical products as well as to the treatment of non-used medicines.

European campaign about Meds disposal