Pharmaceuticals in the environment

Active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) have beneficial effects on human and animal health, but in the environment their effects are a global concern. The environmental fate of most pharmaceuticals and their effects on biota are poorly known. In the European Union´s Water Framework Directive the contamination of water with API residues is considered as an emerging environmental concern.

The Baltic Sea has a large catchment area with 85 million inhabitants. Residues of various pharmaceutical ingredients – e.g. hormones, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and other analgesics – have been detected in the Baltic Sea water and fish, but it is currently difficult to make reliable emission estimations and risk assessment of APIs in the Baltic Sea Region. The data about the human consumption and emissions of pharmaceuticals is inadequate in many countries, as is environmental monitoring data. The data about veterinary APIs is even scarcer and largely non-existent or it has not been compiled. The role of the pharmaceutical industry as an emission source is also unknown because environment permits do not oblige the industry to analyze APIs in effluents.

HELCOM report on pharmaceuticals in Baltic waters


HELCOM and UNESCO published a status report on pharmaceuticals in Baltic waters in 2017. Out of the eight therapeutic groups included in the report, the most frequently measured substances in the Baltic Sea marine environment belong to the groups of anti-inflammatory and analgesics, cardiovascular agents, and central nervous system agents. 91% of the measured pharmaceuticals were detected in municipal wastewater treatment plants, 52% in freshwater and 44% in the marine environment.

The main pathway of pharmaceuticals into the freshwater and marine environments is commonly stated to take place via the discharges of municipal wastewater treatment plant effluents. Conventional treatment methods cannot remove most APIs from wastewater. Only nine out of 118 assessed APIs were removed from wastewater during the treatment processes with an efficiency of over 95%, and nearly half of the compounds were removed with an efficiency of less than 50%. Sixteen compounds were found in higher concentrations in effluents from municipal wastewater treatment plants than in influents.

European Commission is preparing a strategic approach to minimize pollution from pharmaceuticals

Legal and political drivers have been rare for managing effluents containing APIs to date, but stricter regulation is foreseeable in the future. Current EU law requires member states to establish schemes for take-back and safe disposal of unused medicines, but only 3 out of 8 Baltic EU member states have national obligations for take-back schemes. The European Commission is preparing a strategic approach to minimize pollution from pharmaceuticals. The EU Water Framework Directive already obliges member states to monitor certain APIs and it is possible that legally binding Environmental Quality Standards and emission reduction measures will be set in the near future.

 Read more about EU´s Strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment.

The Baltic Sea Pharma platform brings together projects and stakeholders

Baltic Sea Platform logo 335px

The Baltic Sea Pharma platform brings together projects and stakeholders throughout the Baltic Sea Region to assist in knowledge-sharing, increase effectiveness, streamline activities and support regional policy development. The platform is a flagship of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region.

Read more about the Baltic Sea Pharma platform.

Published 2018-02-08 at 11:26, updated 2024-07-16 at 14:01
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