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Big Pharma is big on pollution

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

pharmaceutical industry pollution

Story at-a-glance -

  • The pharmaceutical industry releases 48.55 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per million dollars, which works out to about 55% greater emissions than the automotive industry
  • The pharmaceutical industry generates more emissions despite being a much smaller industry compared to the automotive sector
  • The study calculated Big Pharma to be 28 smaller, but 13% more polluting, than the automotive industry
  • Researchers tested for 14 antibiotics in rivers spread across 72 countries worldwide, finding antibiotics in 65% of the sites tested
  • Massive amounts of pharmaceutical waste are entering waterways near drug manufacturing facilities and resulting in the development of multidrug-resistant pathogens

When you think of industries with the worst environmental footprints, the agricultural and automotive industries may come to mind. Yet, the pharmaceutical sector has received little attention in terms of how their manufacturing processes are affecting the Earth.

An eye-opening study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production has changed that, however, revealing the carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry — and it's a large one.1

One of the study's authors, Lotfi Belkhir, associate professor and chair of eco-entrepreneurship at McMaster University in Ontario, stated in The Conversation, "Rarely does mention of the pharmaceutical industry conjure up images of smoke stacks, pollution and environmental damage … One immediate and striking result is that the pharmaceutical sector is far from green."2

Big Pharma has higher emissions than the automotive industry

Of the more than 200 companies that make up the global pharmaceutical market, only 15 reported their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions since 2012. The researchers analyzed emissions based on each $1 million in revenue in 2015, as a larger company is generally going to create greater emissions than a smaller one.

In evaluating emissions intensity accordingly, the study found the pharmaceutical industry releases 48.55 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per million dollars, which works out to about 55% greater emissions than the automotive industry, which came in at 31.4 tons of CO2e per million dollars in 2015. According to Belkhir:3

"We restricted our analysis to the direct emissions generated by the companies' operations and to the indirect emissions generated by the electricity purchased by these companies from their respective utilities companies.

The total global emissions of the pharma sector amounts to about 52 megatonnes of CO2e in 2015, more than the 46.4 megatonnes of CO2e generated by the automotive sector in the same year."

What's more, the pharmaceutical industry generates more emissions despite being a much smaller industry compared to the automotive sector. The study calculated Big Pharma to be 28% smaller, but 13% more polluting, than the automotive industry.4

Which pharmaceutical companies are the most polluting?

There were wide variations in just how polluting different pharmaceutical companies were. Eli Lilly, which had 77.3 tons of CO2e per million, had 5.5 times more emissions than Roche (14 tons CO2e per million). Procter & Gamble also had five times greater emissions than Johnson & Johnson, Belkhir reported, even though they had similar revenues and produce similar products.

Bayer AG came in worst of all — by a landslide. The company had an emission intensity of 189 tons CO2e per million, which is more than four times the emissions than the overall pharmaceutical industry. Belkhir explained:5

"In trying to explain this incredibly large deviation, we found that Bayer's revenues derive from pharmaceutical products, medical equipment and agricultural commodities. While Bayer reports its financial revenues separately for each division, it lumps together the emissions from all the divisions.

The company also reports and tracks its emission intensity in terms of tonnes of CO2e produced for each tonne of manufactured goods, whether fertilizer or Aspirin, for example. This level of opacity makes it … impossible to assess the true environmental performance of these kind of companies."

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Dangerous levels of antibiotics contaminate rivers worldwide

The featured study only looked at greenhouse gas emissions, yet the pharmaceutical industry emits other forms of pollution as well. In the first global study of its kind, researchers from the University of York in England tested for 14 antibiotics in rivers spread across 72 countries worldwide.

The results, which were presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) in Helsinki, Finland, found antibiotics in 65% of the sites tested.6 The antibiotic found most often was trimethoprim, a medication commonly used to treat urinary tract infections, which was detected at 307 of the 711 sites tested.

Ciproflpxacin, meanwhile, was the drug most often found at levels that exceeded safety thresholds; 51 of the sites contained ciprofloxacin at potentially dangerous levels. Metronidazole, an antibiotic often used for skin and mouth infections, was also found at levels that exceeded the "safe" threshold — by up to 300 times at one site in Bangladesh.7

Aside from Bangladesh, other areas where antibiotics were most frequently detected at levels that exceeded safety thresholds included Kenya, Ghana, Pakistan and Nigeria. "The study revealed that high-risk sites were typically adjacent to wastewater treatment systems, waste or sewage dumps and in some areas of political turmoil, including the Israeli and Palestinian border," according to a University of York news release.8

That being said, concerning levels of antibiotics were also found in rivers in Europe, North America and South America, showing that the contamination is a global problem. Study co-author Alistair Boxall, an environmental scientist at the University of York, noted that antibiotic contamination in waterways could be contributing to antibiotic resistance around the globe:9

"The results are quite eye opening and worrying, demonstrating the widespread contamination of river systems around the world with antibiotic compounds. Many scientists and policy makers now recognize the role of the natural environment in the antimicrobial resistance problem. Our data show that antibiotic contamination of rivers could be an important contributor.

Solving the problem is going to be a mammoth challenge and will need investment in infrastructure for waste and wastewater treatment, tighter regulation and the cleaning up of already contaminated sites."

Drug manufacturers leading to the development of superbugs

Massive amounts of pharmaceutical waste are entering waterways near drug manufacturing facilities and, according to research published in the journal Infection, resulting in the development of multidrug-resistant pathogens.10

In November 2016, researchers from Germany's University of Leipzig collected water samples from "the direct environment of bulk drug manufacturing facilities, the vicinity of two sewage treatment plants, the Musi River and habitats in Hyderabad [South India] and nearby villages."11

Twenty-eight sampling sites were surveyed, and the water samples were analyzed for 25 anti-infective pharmaceuticals as well as multidrug-resistant pathogens and certain resistance genes.12 All of the samples were contaminated with antimicrobials, including high concentrations of moxifloxacin, voriconazole and fluconazole as well as increased concentrations of eight other antibiotics in area sewers.

Some of the samples contained antimicrobials at levels up to 5,500 times higher than the environmental regulation limit.13 What's more, more than 95% of the samples also contained multidrug-resistant bacteria and fungi.14

The researchers called this contamination with antimicrobial pharmaceuticals "unprecedented" and blamed it on "insufficient wastewater management by bulk drug manufacturing facilities, which seems to be associated with the selection and dissemination of carbapenemase-producing pathogens."15

Big Pharma is destroying India's water

In 2016, the nonprofit foundation Changing Markets issued a report on "Impacts of Pharmaceutical Pollution on Communities and Environment in India," on behalf of Nordea Asset Management, a major investment firm in Sweden.16

According to this report, the severe water pollution problem in India can be, to a significant extent, traced back to the generic "bulk" drug industry.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of contaminated waterways in India more than doubled, and by 2015, more than half of the nation's rivers were polluted. India's low cost of manufacturing has lured a number of drug companies to set up shop, congregating in the city of Hyderabad and along the Andhra Pradesh coastline. The report states:17

"The social and environmental costs of the development of Hyderabad's bulk drug industry are plain to see in the neighborhoods and villages surrounding the industrial areas, and have been well-documented over a period of decades.

However, the response from both the central government and the state authorities has been woefully inadequate, not to say complicit, and over the years, irresponsible drug manufacturers have enjoyed free rein to continue pumping vast quantities of untreated or inadequately treated pharmaceutical waste into the environment.

Inhabitants living and working in the vicinity of drug manufacturing units in Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, and other locations have borne the brunt of this.It has affected their livelihoods in the form of livestock deaths and decreased agricultural yields, and damaged their health, with reported impacts ranging from higher abortion rates to birth defects and stunted growth in children, as well as greater incidence of skin diseases."

Antibiotic resistance is also on the rise in India, where 58,000 newborn babies died from drug-resistant infections in 2013. The pollution caused by pharmaceutical manufacturing is noted as one of the often-overlooked causes of antibiotic resistance.18

Even the fish supply is drugged

Puget Sound, which is located along the northwestern coat of Washington, is yet another body of water being inundated with contaminants from wastewater plant effluent. Previous research by the U.S. Geological Survey found that effluent from wastewater treatment plants that receive discharge from drug manufacturers had 10 to 1,000 times higher concentrations of pharmaceuticals than those that do not.19

A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center also detected 81 chemical compounds in Puget Sound water, including the antidepressant Prozac and the diabetes medication metformin.20,21

The researchers then examined fish native to the Sound (juvenile Chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin) and detected 42 of the chemical compounds in their tissue, some at levels high enough to affect growth, reproduction and/or behavior. It's unknown whether consuming fish contaminated with these drugs pose risks to humans, but there are likely risks to the fish themselves.

Separate research, for instance, has linked exposure to the drug metformin to the occurrence of intersex fish, where male fish show evidence of feminization.22 A report by UK-based environmental charity CHEM Trust further highlighted the issues of pharmaceutical pollution in marine life.23

They noted that 613 pharmaceuticals have been found in the environment globally, but this is likely a vast underestimate, since analytical detection methods aren't available for most medications in use. Still, the report found:24

  • 23 pharmaceuticals, including antidepressants, sedatives, antibiotics, painkillers and anti-cancer drugs, in perch fish in Sweden
  • Ethinyl estradiol from birth control pills in Baltic Sea salmon

Can you make a dent in pharmaceutical pollution?

Curbing the environmental damage being caused by pharmaceutical manufacturing pollution is an urgent global effort, but you can take small steps to reduce your own pharmaceutical footprint. For starters, choose organic animal foods, as the agriculture industry is one of the largest consumers of drugs such as antibiotics.

If you take medications, use them only when necessary and do not flush unused drugs down your toilet or pour them down the drain. Many areas offer drug take-back programs that allow you to dispose of medications at designated spots in your community (sometimes a local law enforcement agency or pharmacy). If such a program is not available in your area, you can dispose of medication in your trash.

It's recommended that you remove pills from packaging, crush them and seal them in a plastic bag with some water and sawdust, cat litter or coffee grounds (this is to discourage any animals or a child from consuming the contents).25 In addition, install a water filter on your tap to ensure your drinking water is pure.

Ultimately, however, the pharmaceutical industry is who should be held responsible for cleaning up the massive amounts of pollution they're sending into the environment. As Belkhir said, "Healing people [a generous statement for most drugs] is no justification for killing the planet."26