Viivi Snellman
When people get ill, they do not necessarily think about the environmental impacts of their drugs. The environmental impacts vary, however, depending on the pharmaceutical product, and these impacts can be influenced starting from the development of the drug molecule to the use and disposal of the drugs.
Everyone can reduce the harmful environmental impacts of drugs by following the instructions for use and returning expired or unused drugs to pharmacies for their safe disposal. Pharmaceutical waste can also be reduced by buying only the drugs that are needed and by buying small packs when starting a new course of treatment.

Environmental impacts of drugs vary

Pharmaceuticals end up in the environment after their use via the sewer network and along with waste. Pharmaceutical residues have been found to have impacts on the waterways and soil and to make changes to the reproduction of fish, for example. The evaluation of the environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals is complicated by the matter of drug metabolism, i.e. conversion into different substances in the body. As a consequence, one pharmaceutical can end up in the environment as several different substances, so monitoring the concentration of its active pharmaceutical ingredient in the environment is not enough. A further challenge is caused by the mixing of several different pharmaceuticals in the environment.
The most harmful pharmaceutical substances are molecules that do not break down and remain in the environment permanently. In addition to this, the most significant characteristics when evaluating environmental hazards are bio-accumulation, or accumulation in the biota, and toxicity. Toxicity is, however, necessary in the case of certain drugs. The cytostatic agents used in cancer treatments for example must be able to destroy cells. It is important to remember that environmental factors are always secondary and must only be considered in the case of preparations that provide equivalent treatment. The efficacy of the pharmaceutical treatment must be the primary criterion when selecting the treatment for a patient.

A drug’s entire life cycle must be considered when evaluating environmental impacts

In Finland pharmaceutical manufacturing is highly regulated and monitored. Unfortunately, the situation is not the same all over the world, which causes local problems for the environment and has an impact on global climate change. When packaging materials are selected, the environmental impacts of various materials should be considered in addition to their suitability. Empty pharmaceutical packages currently often end up in mixed waste even though some of the packaging materials are recyclable.
In the interests of more ecological pharmaceutical treatment, we should consider the manufacturing processes, packaging and transportation of drugs in addition to the environmental impacts of active pharmaceutical ingredients. This means that even if pharmaceutical preparations contain the same active pharmaceutical ingredient their environmental load can differ significantly.

Pharmaceutical Information Centre promotes a cleaner environment

In Sweden, an environmental classification system for active pharmaceutical ingredients has been in use for over 10 years. Finland works on several fronts to reduce the environmental impact of medicines and improve the sustainability of the pharmaceutical industry. The goal is to implement a similar environmental classification system in Finland. We at the Pharmaceutical Information Centre want to participate in promoting environmental awareness and our goal is to draw up an environmental classification based on active substances by the end of 2021.

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