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The quiet ecocide of pharmaceutical pollution

  • Mo Wilde
    Mo Wilde

    Monica ‘Mo’ Wilde is a Research Herbalist and a keen forager. She has lived only on wild food for a year and, intrigued by the health benefits, ran a study with 24 other foragers eating wild called The Wildbiome Project. Her book The Wilderness Cure (Simon & Schuster) won the John Avery 2023 award for original and adventurous writing. It explores many of the issues around food and our relationship with nature, encountered during her year on wild food. Mo also practices in the Claid Clinic at Napiers the Herbalists.

    Follow the foraging progress @monicawilde and @wildbiomeproject on Instagram.

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The quiet ecocide of pharmaceutical pollution

We may be familiar with the impact of plastic, agrochemical, and human waste, but what are the causes and consequences of pharmaceutical pollution?

It is nearly 62 years since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring1, disclosing the toxicity of pesticide use. A lifetime further on and we hear about pollution daily: the agrochemical pollution wiping out bees; the air pollution raising asthma rates; the sewage pollution in our rivers; and the tonnes of plastic polluting the oceans. We occasionally hear horror stories about oil spills or toxic chemical leaks yet rarely about the constant drip, drip, drip of pharmaceutical waste. When we think of chemicals, medicines aren’t the first thing that springs to mind, yet drugs and their metabolites are now widespread in the aquatic environment of groundwater, rivers, lakes, and the oceans.

Pharmaceuticals are biologically active chemicals. As they are designed to cause changes in living cells, they affect other living creatures, from fungi to fish, as well as our own bodies. Classed as ‘micropollutants’ they are also tiny. Too small to be filtered out in sewage systems, without special processes. In Europe, a lot of effluent grey water is released into large bodies of water (such as rivers) to dilute it, before being recaptured and recycled into drinking water. Climate change reduces the flow of water in rivers, and water scarcity prevents the proper dilution of micropollutants increasing the hazard level. With veterinary pharmaceutical waste much of it goes directly into rivers, bypassing even the most basic levels of remedial treatment. 

To illustrate the scale of this, ten years ago, just under 9.5 million kilos of medically significant antibiotics were sold for use in food animals compared to just under 3.5 million sold for human use – a ratio of nearly 3:1 animals:humans (2). Global meat production in 2027 is projected to be 15% higher than when those figures were recorded. Over the same period, global fish farming — another major source of pharmaceutical pollution — is expected to increase by 13.4%. In 2016, between 100 and 200 different types of pharmaceuticals were found in British surface water, ground water, tap and drinking water, leading Europe alongside Germany and Spain (3) and, globally, over 600 different products have been discovered in freshwater.

Pharmaceutical waste comes from three main areas: manufacturing; disposal; and excretion.

Diagram pharma cycle
Diagram from: OECD (2019), Pharmaceutical Residues in Freshwater: Hazards and Policy Responses, OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/c936f42d-en.
Mo Wilde

Monica ‘Mo’ Wilde is a Research Herbalist and a keen forager. She has lived only on wild food for a year and, intrigued by the health benefits, ran a study with 24 other foragers eating wild... Read more

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