According to an Australian expert, rich countries should help poorer countries deal with the risk posed by pharmaceutical contamination of the environment. Dr Rai Kookana, an environmental chemist with the CSIRO, made the comments following the release of a study published in a recent issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The study is the first to compare the risk of pollution from drugs, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and antidepressants, in high-income and lower-income countries around the world. During the study, Kookana and colleagues gathered data on factors such as demographics, the manufacture and consumption of pharmaceuticals, and the quality of waste and wastewater systems to assess the potential risk from pharmaceuticals in 17 countries. They discovered that countries like China and India are at greater risk than higher-income countries, of groundwater, land and river contamination from the active ingredients of drugs. Kookana says poor waste and waste water systems are key factors contributing to pollution in lower-income countries. “Historically, when drugs are brought on to the market, the environment doesn’t come into the picture at all. But obviously the drugs find their way into the environment through the waste stream,” he says. Major “point sources” of contamination are drug manufacturing facilities, which are increasingly being moved to poorer countries, where labour costs are lower, he adds. “There is some evidence from China and India that effluents from drug manufacturing plants contain high concentrations of antibiotics and other drugs including antidepressants and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs),” says Kookana. “The rivers and lakes receiving these effluents have been found to be contaminated with these drugs.” He says a 2007 Swedish study found drug concentrations in a river adjacent to one drug manufacturing area exceeded the therapeutic levels in humans. Previous research has shown that some pharmaceuticals are known to persist in the environment and there is evidence they affect animals, says Kookana. For example, a 2004 paper in Nature blamed a crash in vulture numbers on the Indian subcontinent on pollution from the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. “There is also some evidence that antidepressants such as fluoxetine can cause behavioural problems in fish, water fleas and birds,” he adds. And his own research has shown the mood stabiliser and anti-epileptic drug carbamazepine is taken up by plants. Kookana says there is a desperate need for more data on the effect of such pollution in low to middle-income countries. “Nearly 60 per cent of the generic drugs of the world are produced in China and India,” says Kookana. “We are interlinked internationally,” he adds. “We have a responsibility to help some of the developing countries to better understand the effects of these drugs in the environment.” The researchers found Australia had a comparatively low risk of pollution from pharmaceuticals, but Kookana says there is still reason for concern. “Our population is ageing rapidly so our reliance on pharmaceuticals is increasing,” he says. For this reason, the government funds a program to collect and dispose of unwanted and out-of-date medicines to stop pharmaceutical pollution at source. But Kookana also thinks regulatory agencies need to take Europe’s lead and require manufacturers to consider the potential ecological impacts of their drugs. “I would like to see regulatory agencies in Australia give consideration to the ecological footprint of a given pharmaceutical active ingredient,” says Kookana.
ABC News, 18 December 2014 ;http://www.abc.net.au/news/ ;