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Environmental Sustainability of Medicinal Plants (Part 8)

Written by Roy Upton

Introduction

At the heart of most all herbal medicine traditions is a relationship with earth and the natural world. This stems from the inalienable fact that humans are an extension of the natural world, are dependent upon the natural world for their survival, and that what affects the natural world affects human health (e.g., diet, pollution, etc.). This relationship also extends to cultures, some of whom for generations have either cultivated medicinal plant crops or harvested them from the wild, and forms the basis of countless economies worldwide. While over-harvesting of medicinal plants can have a negative environmental effects, cultivation or wild harvesting of medicinal plants when done according to Good Agriculture and Collection Practices (GACP), international standards for which exist (e.g., WHO 2003; AHPA, among others), creates incentives for land preservation and maintains and fosters environmental stewardship of natural resources, thus ensuring future supplies of medicinal plants. Overwhelmingly, development and loss of land is the primary reason for loss of biodiversity and species.

Juxtaposed against the largely positive environmental impact of medicinal plant trade is the largely negative environmental impact of pharmaceutical medications, which have significant consequences on both human and environmental health. There are two primary sources of pharmaceutical pollution; pharmaceutical production and the pollution generated therefrom through effluence and emissions, as well as the excretion of medications and their metabolites ingested by humans and farm animals. In the US, a report from the US Geological Survey detected pharmaceutical contaminants in 80% of 139 streams sampled. Contaminants included antibiotics, hypertensive medications, antidepressants, analgesics, reproductive hormones, and other prescription drugs that also affected municipal water (Glassmeyer et al. 2005; NRDC 2009). The most stark environmental impact of pharmaceuticals has been from endocrine disruptors, partially due to metabolites excreted in urine from oral contraceptive use. A 2007 study reported that 75% of male smallmouth bass in certain areas of the Potomac River basin (US) had ovarian tissue in their gonads resulting in a feminization of the fish (Blazer et al. 2007). Other studies report similar negative effects directly associated with oral contraceptives delivered through municipal wastewaters affecting fish populations (e.g., Kidd et al. 2007). In another study, fish exposed to effluent from a cattle feedlot in the US state of Nebraska experienced reproductive abnormalities, including reduced testes size in male fish and a lower level of estrogen in female fish (Orlando et al. 2004). Other studies link such xenoestrogen exposure to testicular and breast cancer in humans (Wright-Walters and Volz 2007, and references therein). The US Geological Survey (Glassmeyer et al. 2005) reported finding nonprescription pharmaceuticals in more than 40% of the municipal water samples tested; prescription and nonantibiotic pharmaceuticals in more than 30% of samples. Moreover, the ubiquitous overuse of antibiotics, especially in farm animals, bioaccumulate in soil potentially giving rise to antibiotic resistance pathogens (NRDC 2009), that is already a serious international health care crisis.

Such events are not limited to the US. In Pakistan, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) diclofenac was linked to widespread die off of vulture populations leading to the listing of three vulture species as endangered (Arnold et al. 2013, and references therein). Moreover, the same drug increases the risk of heart attack in humans (Kearney et al. 2006). A number of surveys in Germany report that 95% of the pharmaceuticals studied are not readily biodegradable; 15% are persistent in surface water, approximately 50% of veterinary pharmaceuticals studied are persistent in soil, and a large number of pharmaceutical substances and metabolites can be found in wastewater and surface water throughout Europe. Standard long-term tests conducted with fish, daphnia, and algae as test organisms revealed effects at pharmaceutical concentrations of less than 1 mg/L, while one study described changes in aquatic organisms at much lower concentrations of less than 0.001 mg/L (EEA 2010). There currently exists little health risk assessment data regarding the potential adverse effects from chronic exposure to the myriad of pharmaceuticals that accumulate in the environment. From a traditional herbal medicine perspective, it is incongruent to have a healing system that, in addition to killing more people than cigarettes and alcohol from gross adverse effects, is so inherently toxic to the environment that it contributes greatly to human disease. Conversely, medicinal plants have co-evolved with the environment for millennia and such negative consequences do not exist in healthy ecosystems.

Roy Upton is the founder, president, and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP). He has been working and practicing professionally as a herbalist since 1981, and he trained in Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese, and Western herbal medicine and has also studied and worked extensively with Native American and Caribbean ethnobotanical traditions. As an integral part of his work as a herbalist, he spend a great deal of time defending the rights of consumers to access herbal medicines and to see herbal medicine integrated into the fabric of both our homes and health care systems.

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