Professionals across multiple fields met in London last week to discuss how pharmaceuticals that have been dumped into the world’s waterways might affect both the environment and human health. The conference, organized by the Epidemiology & Public Health Section of the Royal Society of Medicine and the University of Verona, addressed the emerging global issue of “ecopharmacovigilance” and discussed how experts around the world can monitor the effects of long-term exposure and bioaccumulation of drugs that have made their way into drinking water.
In a report published last July, the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraged researchers to look into the matter, but stated that current research suggests "trace quantities of pharmaceuticals in drinking water are very unlikely to pose risks to human health," adding that the issue "should not divert the attention and valuable resources of water suppliers and regulators" from pathogens and other dangerous chemicals, ScienceInsider reported. A few studies have demonstrated unwanted effects of discarded drugs, however, such as the feminization of male fish in rivers polluted with the endocrine disruptor, ethinyl estradiol (EE2), the main component of birth control pills.
Some researchers are arguing that the best solution may be prescribing fewer drugs overall, and switching to more biodegradable ones. But some pharma representatives, such as Pfizer's director of environmental toxicology Frank Mastrocco, argue that such proposed legislation "presupposes there is a problem," he told ScienceInsider, and that trying to remove existing drugs, such as EE2, from the environment may very costly and ultimately impractical. Nevertheless, countries such as Sweden and, more recently, France have already instituted measures to monitor and reduce pharmaceuticals in the environment, and more are likely to follow.