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Types of Pollution: Have You Considered Pharmaceutical Waste?

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Hyderabad is one of the world’s largest bulk drug manufacturing locales, supplying the world with vital pharmaceuticals and providing the local populous with much needed jobs – but at what price?

Despite regulation and legislation regarding the methods by which pharmaceutical companies must treat waste water, a recent report from the Changing Markets Foundation confirms the findings of a 2016 study that found the manufacturers were continuing to discharge untreated or inappropriately treated waste into the environment. If anything, the situation appeared to have worsened.

In addition to the pharmaceuticals themselves, heavy metals and industrial solvents from the manufacturing process were detected at levels many times the legal maximums, exposing residents and wildlife to a toxic cocktail.

These alarming findings come at a time when rainfall and climate changes are already putting strain on India’s water supplies. This poses problems for residents, the ecosystem and ironically the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, which relies on steady water supplies for the production process.

Worryingly, the situation in Hyderabad is echoed at other big pharmaceutical production hubs in India and around the globe.

The causes of pharmaceutical pollution is not limited to manufacturing waste, they can also enter the environment from excreted human and animal waste. A problem that has been increasingly highlighted.

Environmental Consequences of Pharmaceutical Contamination

Ecosystems exist in a fine balance, disturbances can have devastating consequences and create a cascade of knock on effects. Declines or population explosions of plants, animals or microbes may occur in response to toxicity or an abundance of a particular chemical. 

As well as the obvious direct toxic effects of some of the heavy metals and chemicals entering the water supplies, a study found that fish living downstream from a sewerage treatment plant had to work harder to survive. Fish living in polluted waters had to work at least 30 % harder to remove contaminants from their body, burning vital energy and consequently making them more vulnerable to predation. There have been links to the feminization of male fish from the effects of female birth control pills in the water systems. A recent study looked at the effects pharmaceuticals were having on shellfish and found membrane malformations and reproductive difficulties. 

Whilst organisms may be surviving, it does not mean that they are unaffected.

Effects of pharmaceutical environmental pollution on human health

Aside from the loss of clean drinking water and fish that are a vital source of nutrition and income, toxic foam from the lakes where the pharmaceutical waste is discharged has caused evacuations of many homes in Hyderabad. Those that came into contact with the foam reported rashes, sore eyes and fevers. Residents also exhibited symptoms that had been related to ingestion of fish and water contaminated with chloromethane, a solvent from the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. The long-term health effects of chronic exposure to unacceptably high levels of pharmaceuticals are yet to be fully understood and may not be apparent until it is too late.

Antimicrobial drug contamination linked to causes of antibiotic resistance

Antimicrobial resistance is a hot topic, with incidences of multidrug resistant infections on the increase, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The main finger of blame has been pointed towards irresponsible use of antibiotics in human medicine and farming, however there is a growing body of evidence pointing to a third driving force –  drug manufacturing pollution. Findings from studies in 2016 and 2017, that focussed around antibiotic manufacturing pollution in India and China, bolster this hypothesis. 

Samples, taken from sewers and other sites around bulk drug manufacturing plants in Hyderabad and the city itself, showed disturbingly high levels of antimicrobial substances in the samples. The concentration of a broad-spectrum antibiotic, ciprofloxacin, was enough to treat 44,000 people daily. In addition, over 95 % of samples contained multidrug-resistant bacterial strains. Antibiotics that have been excreted into sewerage are also proving a dangerous catalyst for growing antimicrobial resistance. Studies looking at urban water ways suggest selection for sub-populations of resistant bacteria in response to high levels of antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin.

What does the future look like?

There is a clear understanding from some quarters, especially Europe and the US, that steps must be taken to reduce pharmaceutical pollution and combat antimicrobial resistance. The dire situation was highlighted in the report Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern produced by the UN, the WHO have already set out a global action plan and the UK government have made recommendations to instigate discharge limits for suppliers.

However, indicators from the Indian Government suggest that they are not taking actions to combat the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the pollution. Rather they are lifting restrictions on industrial plant expansion. Thus far the Indian government have declined to comment.

As countries, such as the UK, France, Sweden and Germany are being encouraged to build environmental criteria into contractual agreements with pharmaceutical suppliers and manufacturers, it is hoped that such measures will force the hand of reluctant parties.