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Scientists sound the alarm on pharmaceutical pollution crisis

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Our increasing dependency on pharmaceuticals comes at a major environmental cost, researchers have warned.

In an article published in the journal Nature Sustainabilty, researchers warn that discharges to the environment during drug production, use, and disposal have resulted in ecosystems around the globe being polluted with mixtures of pharmaceuticals, posing a growing danger to wildlife and human health.

While emphasising that pharmaceuticals are indispensable in modern healthcare and will remain crucial in the future, the researchers highlight the need for designing and manufacturing more sustainable drugs to combat this issue at source.

“A wide variety of drugs have now been detected in environments spanning all continents on Earth,” said Assistant Professor Michael Bertram, a researcher at The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and shared first author.

“Exposure to even trace concentrations of some of these drugs can have severe impacts on the health of wildlife and human populations, and has already led to severe population crashes in vultures throughout India and Pakistan, as well as widespread sex-reversal of fish populations exposed to the human contraceptive pill.”

Pharmaceutical pollution is a complex problem that demands a multifaceted solution. So far, environmental protection efforts have mainly been focused on upgrading wastewater treatment infrastructure to remove drugs before release into waterways more effectively.

Despite being an important part of an overall solution, wastewater treatment is unable to address this issue in isolation.

In the article, 17 leading international scientists call for an increased focus on designing greener and more sustainable pharmaceuticals to tackle this issue at its source.

“Because drug design is the first step in the life-cycle of pharmaceuticals, greener drugs reduce the potential for pollution throughout the entire cycle” said Gorka Orive, a scientist and professor of pharmacy based at the University of the Basque Country.

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