Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Pharmaceuticals washed away in the environment

There is increasing concern regarding the health and environmental hazards posed by various prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceutical products (PPs). Formulating risk assessments for these drugs is therefore needed to protect the environment and human health.
Pharmaceuticals washed away in the environment
Some drugs and their metabolites are not removed during conventional biological treatment and can enter the water supply. Although the levels of PPs in the environment are considered low, their presence raises questions regarding the long-term impact on aquatic life and humans.

Despite the information on behaviour of PPs, little is known regarding the risks associated with their uncontrolled release into the environment. The EU-funded PHARMAS project set out to evaluate the environmental and health risks associated with certain PPs. The consortium adopted an interdisciplinary approach to generate important data regarding exposure to PPs released in the environment.

Based on the nature of the drug and the extent of potential threat, researchers focused on antibiotics and anticancer drugs. They defined possible risks for a number of PPs by taking into account scenarios of exposure, as well as the impact of the chosen PPs on organisms.

Modelling was used to predict the likely concentrations of both antibiotic and anticancer drugs in European rivers and these were confirmed by actual measurements in both surface and drinking water. These PPs were toxic to aquatic organisms only at high concentrations. However, scientists found that wastewater treatment often degrades parent pharmaceuticals into sub-products that cannot be measured or assessed in terms of toxicity.

Despite regional differences in the levels and exposure to environmentally released PPs, the consortium concluded that the anticancer drugs studied posed a very small threat to the environment and to human health. They formulated a risk and hazard classification system for pharmaceuticals, but emphasised the threat posed by antibiotics given their implication in antibiotic-resistant microorganisms.

A European risk and hazard classification system for medicinal products is undoubtedly needed for drafting EU policies that minimise PP-associated risks for human health and ecosystems. Using the example of Sweden, PHARMAS partners are confident that by influencing existing consumption patterns through the promotion of less problematic substances, they could reduce the environmental release of toxic pharmaceuticals and their derivatives.

Related information


Pharmaceutical products, risk assessments, environment, human health, antibiotics
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