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Protecting the environment from pharmaceutical pollution – what can we do?

Last Update 06/04/2021

Medicines can pollute the environment if they are not disposed of properly. posing a threat to animals and plant life, and potentially affect human health too.


The medicines we use can pollute the environment if they are not disposed of properly. This can pose a threat to animals and plant life, and potentially affect human health too.

It’s not just the surplus medicines we throw away that cause pharmaceutical pollution (although there are things we can all do to make sure unused medicines don’t add to the problem). Drugs and their waste products can also find their way into the environment when they are being made and used.

This type of pollution affects water quality and marine life, changes the growth and survival of plants, and has even been shown to affect animal behaviour. There are also concerns that pharmaceutical pollution makes it easier for harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi to develop ways to resist treatment. This is known as antimicrobial resistance.

The European Commission have made suggestions about the types of actions that should be taken across Europe. They recommend that policy makers:

  • Act to increase awareness of pharmaceutical pollution.
  • Promote proper use and disposal of medicines.
  • Support manufacture that produces less pollution.
  • Improve local and national schemes that deal with pharmaceutical waste.

The have also said that any actions taken to reduce the impact on the environment should not affect access to safe and effective medical treatment.

As the amount of medicines that we use increases, it is even more important that we work to protect the environment from the effects of pharmaceutical pollution. Everyone can do their bit by asking their pharmacist or healthcare professional about local schemes for disposing of medicines safely. It’s also up to policy makers, drug manufacturers and healthcare professionals to make and enforce rules so that fewer drugs find their way into the environment. 

Find out more from the European Commission

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