News Release

*Free* Limiting the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals

Reports and Proceedings

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Humans consume more pharmaceuticals than ever, which has led to increased pharmaceutical pollution of global ecosystems. New measures and research are needed to limit these chemicals’ largely unexplored ecological impacts, write Gorka Orive and colleagues in a Perspective. Like many synthetic chemicals, the vast diversity of drugs and medications consumed by humans, pets, and livestock eventually finds its way into the environment through waste and wastewater. Pharmaceutical compounds – designed to elicit biological changes – likely have far-reaching ecological impacts, even at extremely low concentrations. They can bioaccumulate in wild animals to concentrations that exceed recommended doses and have already been observed to alter the behavior and survival of certain organisms, like several species of vultures in Asia driven to near extinction by exposure to the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. However, despite the growing body of evidence for potentially widespread effects, the ecological impact of most forms of pharmaceutical pollution remains virtually unknown, particularly in the context of mixture effects and the cascading effects across complex natural systems. According to Orive et al., further ecotoxicological research is needed to properly evaluate these impacts. The authors also call for advances in wastewater decontamination at drug manufacturing facilities and in the development of “greener” drugs, which are more easily eliminated in the environment. The authors do cite unintended consequences that could result from raising awareness of the environmental impacts of drugs, such as “reluctance to take medicine…However, although conflicts of interest may be unavoidable, it is possible to limit the negative consequences of pharmaceuticals while still allowing society to benefit.”

For reporters interested in trends, a February 2022 Report in Science presented a framework by which to more rigorously associate impacts of exposure to mixtures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals to health outcomes. Using their approach to study a large cohort of human mother-child pairs, the study’s authors found exposure in pregnant women to mixed endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be associated with language delay in their children.

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