Compared to the pollution from the millions of tons of toxic waste and garbage generated each year, that from prescription drugs is small potatoes. The FDA requires drug companies that plan on making more than 40 tons of a drug to file a separate environmental impact statement; in 2008, only 20 did so out of a pool of 10,000.
But the relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals in the waste stream belie their extreme toxicity.
“These are very small volumes of chemicals we’re talking about, but they’re specifically designed to have activity on humans and so could have an effect on other vertebrates,” said Sonia Shah, a journalist who wrote a recent article on the subject for Yale 360. “Unlike pesticides which are designed to have a very limited effect, pharmaceuticals are designed to be as potent as possible.”
The problem of Rx pollution caught Shah’s attention because of the plight of the Gyps vulture in India. Between 2000 and 2007, the population of the birds plummeted; a study of the problem found the vultures had severe reactions to diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory fed to cattle to make them more productive. The birds were eating the dead cattle, accumulating diclofenac in their bodies, and then dropping dead.
And yet because the chemicals involved are so complex, their effect on the biosphere can be unpredictable. For instance, diclofenac can be fed to chickens with no noticeable side effects.
Another problem with pharmaceuticals is that, according to experts Shah consulted, only about half of drugs are actually metabolized by the body. The rest we excrete into the waste stream with their chemical make-up unchanged, with the same net effect as if we were throwing it away unused.
A powerful financial incentive
Drug companies survive on their patents. They spend hundreds of millions to develop drugs, with the knowledge that most of them will never make it to market — but those that do will be a cash cow for the length of the patent, which is 20 years from the date of invention.
The European Environment Agency in January floated a proposal (PDF) to extend the patents of drugs that are safe, effective and environmentally friendly, so-called “green” pharmaceuticals. The idea is only in the early stages, but it could prove a powerful incentive to companies to create drugs that are biodegradable or otherwise harmless, Shah reports.
An equally powerful motivator may be consumers. “I think in the end it’s going to come down to consumers opting for drugs that aren’t as long lasting and biodegrade quickly,” Shah said, which could require trade-offs, like medicines that must be taken more often, and kept in non-translucent bottles or stored in the refrigerator.