Pharmaceutical pollution is not only harmful to the environment, it also harms human health due to the development of antimicrobial resistance which could see more and more people dying from previously treatable diseases.

And this week, investors, the water industry, and campaign groups in Europe and India have called on the European Commission to publish a plan on how to tackle the problem which it has been putting off since 2015.

In two separate letters sent today, groups called for measures that would oblige pharmaceutical companies supplying the European market to tackle polluting practices throughout their supply chains, including in third countries such as India.

EU environmental regulation does not currently cover impacts of pharmaceuticals throughout their lifecycle.

100,000 tonnes of pharmaceutical products are now produced globally every year, and when they are excreted into the water supply they end up damaging wildlife by polluting rivers and harming wild birds and fish.

Wastewater treatment plants for the most part are not adequately equipped to filter pharmaceuticals out, so medicines end up having unintended consequences when they come into contact with aquatic life. The use of antibiotics in livestock has also increased in recent years, and is a major contributing factor to the rise of antimicrobial resistance globally.

The first letter was signed by investor groups Aviva and Nordea, the water service operators’ group EurEau, as well as campaign groups: the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Germany, Health Care Without Harm Europe and the Changing Markets Foundation.

Dolores Romano from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said:

“European policies need to recognise that the increased presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment and the effects are entirely preventable – if Europe accepts its leadership responsibility to address the root causes and makes available dedicated resources.”

Drug-resistant infections are predicted to cost the world $100 trillion in lost output between now and 2050,  which is more than the current global economy. The WHO estimates that in the EU alone, the issue is costing more than $1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and productivity losses.

Sasja Beslik, Head of Group Sustainable Finance at Nordea, said:

 “We have to change this together, millions of people are impacted.”

The rise in antimicrobial as a result of the discharge of drugs and particular chemicals into the environment has been identified by the UN as one of the most worrying current public health threats. A report commissioned by the British government and released in May 2015, estimated that 700,000 deaths globally could be attributed to antimicrobial resistance in 2015 and that the annual toll would climb to 10 million deaths in the next 35 years.

Nina Renshaw, Secretary-General of the European Public Health Alliance, said:

“If antimicrobial resistance were one disease that threatened to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Europe in 20 years’ time, our political leaders would be leaving no stone unturned to make sure that didn’t happen. It is absolutely vital that our politicians act quickly and effectively to clean up drug supply chains and decisively stop this cause of antimicrobial resistance at the local level, which threatens to become a global health catastrophe.”

The second letter was signed by 80 Indian public health professionals, consumer rights groups and residents affected by pollution from pharmaceutical manufacturing. It draws attention to the impact of pharmaceutical pollution on the health and livelihoods of communities in India, and demands that the European Union take responsibility for the consequences of irresponsible production of pharmaceuticals in third countries.

Shweta Narayan of Community Environmental Monitoring, a program that provides support to pollution impacted communities in India, said:

“India is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and the EU one of its key export markets. Indian and multinational drug companies operate here because of cheap labour and lax implementation of environmental laws. The communities affected by pollution have already tried national legal avenues and won several landmark court cases, but this has not led to an improvement in the situation on the ground. This is why the EU cannot turn a blind eye to this problem.”

Recent research published by the Changing Markets Foundation revealed widespread heavy metal and solvent contamination at factories in Hyderabad, India – a major drug manufacturing hub that produces every tenth tablet sold globally.

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director at Changing Markets, said:

“The high price of our seemingly ‘low cost’ drugs is becoming increasingly apparent. The Commission needs to take immediate action to tackle industrial pollution – both for the health of local communities living close to factories, and to address the health threat that AMR represents for people everywhere.”