The impact of pharmaceutical drugs on marine life

What’s happening? The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has launched a data visualisation tool to help researchers assess the impact of medicines on the environment. Pharmaceuticals in the Water Environment is an interactive platform which merges national environmental and prescribing data. The tool, launched on behalf of the One Health Breakthrough Partnership, collates data for 60 medicines found in river water, raw wastewater and treated wastewater and aims to provide an understanding of the link between medicines and their presence in the environment. (EnviroTech)

Why does this matter? A global study conducted by the University of York recently discovered that pharmaceutical pollution is affecting waters on every continent. The fact pharmaceutical products make their way into aquatic areas is nothing new, however, certain areas, including South America and sub-Saharan Africa, have been limited in their research compared to other regions.

SEPA’s environmental tool therefore seeks to improve data transparency by building an interactive platform where health care sectors and national stakeholders can identify the most damaging medicines while also conceiving solutions.

What’s the damage? Pharmaceutical drugs have a biological effect on our bodies so it’s unsurprising to learn that this can also impact wildlife when water becomes polluted.

Anti-depressants have been found to reduce feeding in starlings. Meanwhile, synthetic hormones in birth-control medication have been known to alter the sex of male fish. This not only affects the animal which comes into direct contact with the drug, but the biological changes it incurs can manipulate delicate ecosystems with devastating consequences. Benzodiazepines, for example, can force early migration among salmon in the Atlantic, resulting in underdevelopment when they arrive at the sea. This also impacts other animals in the food chain that rely on seasonal prompts.

Prevention — Limiting how pharmaceutical products can enter waterways is crucial. SEPA’s offering highlights how collaboration across sectors is likely to be an effective approach. A coalition between pharmaceutical, biotech and diagnostic companies has recently been formed to tackle the release of antibiotics into the environment. The project will focus on the discharge of products at dozens of manufacturing plants in India where waters contain high levels of these drugs.

Aging wastewater treatment infrastructure is a common cause for high levels of discharge. The University of York report also emphasises the connection between pollution and the socioeconomic status of a region. Pharmaceutical companies relying on these regions could, therefore, offer investment to improve infrastructure to help mitigate the issue.

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