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Drug Pollution: a Threat to the World's Rivers

Drug pollution is one of the most dangerous problems, not only for the environmental, but also for human health

River polluted with garbage

Photo: Pixabay

LatinAmerican Post | Vanesa López

In a study recently published by PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), 258 rivers from 104 countries around the world were analyzed and found that a quarter of these are contaminated at toxic levels of active pharmaceutical ingredients. Among the rivers analyzed are, for example, the Thames (in England); or the Amazon (as it passes through Brazil). The data showed that the environmental influence that exists due to this problem can affect around 471.4 million people. Likewise, the study shows that water in all continents is affected by pharmaceutical production processes.

The pharmaceutical industry is the most polluting in the world

Little is said about the huge environmental impact that the pharmaceutical industry can have, since it is an industry that has become necessary for the common good. Unfortunately, the levels of contamination that it can generate are very high. The aforementioned study only takes into consideration one type of waste generated in a production process: effluents. This type of waste is of a liquid nature, both domestic and industrial, and normally affects water tributaries.

Also read: Social And Environmental Justice Must Go Hand In Hand

Many times, water treatment is insufficient for the substances that end up being discharged into the rivers, which has a direct impact on human health. Waste from pharmaceutical production, expired drugs or even human urine containing drugs such as antibiotics can reach the water sources that we consume every day. When antibiotics are consumed that the body does not need, it contributes to the appearance of super-resistant bacteria, which can be very harmful to human health, since eventually the existing medications will be insufficient for the treatment of bacterial infections.

This also has an environmental impact on aquatic organisms. Estrogens are one of the substances that have been most studied on this subject, they are natural or synthetic female hormones used as contraceptive treatment, and it has been found that, as effluent residues, they are directly related to the feminization of male fish.

But these are not the only drugs that have an impact. Medications such as anticonvulsants, antidepressants and anti-inflammatories have been found in the drinking water that reaches people's homes.

The other types of contamination

In the production of the pharmaceutical industry there is a long list of processes that have environmental impacts. The transformation of materials generates effluent waste, as we have already mentioned, but also solid waste and atmospheric emissions. The packaging, the disposable utensils that are used in the production process and the emissions that are released during the industrial process are just some of the contaminating agents that the pharmaceutical industry has and that have a direct impact on the environment.

It has been estimated that this industry has a much higher carbon footprint than the automotive industry. In addition, it must be taken into account that on many occasions the good waste practices of this type of industry fall short, which further increases the impact they have on the environment and human health.

It is necessary that this industry, one that is necessary for human well-being, can transition to responsible production with environmental well-being, which will ultimately also have an impact on human well-being. Research should focus on understanding the impact of these drug residues on ecosystems and human health. Likewise, there must be an extended responsibility for the waste and pollution produced, that is, the industry must not only worry about production, but also about where and how its waste ends up.