A study carried out by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) delivered the first national assessment of pharmaceutical pollution of Scotland’s water environment, using the results to promote practical actions to reduce this globally recognised public health and environmental issue.

Pharmaceuticals (medicines) enter the water environment when people taking medicines go to the toilet (between 30-100% of a dose is excreted) and when partially used or expired medicines are inappropriately flushed down the toilet instead of being returned to a pharmacy for proper disposal.

Information on 60 medicines was added to a database of over 3,000 data points representing 11 ‘types of water’ – such as water in the environment, influent wastewater and treated wastewater. The study, commissioned by the Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW) to support the work of the One Health Breakthrough Partnership, combined published and unpublished academic data with monitoring data from Scottish Water and SEPA.

Lead researcher Dr Karin Helwig said:

“Pharmaceuticals are designed to have an effect on humans, so it’s no surprise that they affect water organisms, too, and that could disturb the balance in ecosystems. There is still much we don’t know about how serious these risks are, but, if we value our environment, it makes sense to try to reduce this kind of pollution as much as possible. Different organisations collect monitoring data for their own different purposes, so it was a real testament to partnership working that we were able to collate everything together and get a clearer picture of this area of emerging concern for the Scottish environment.”

The study found that nine medicines, including ibuprofen (an anti-inflammatory painkiller) and antibiotics, may pose higher risks of ecotoxicity and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), although the authors emphasise that monitoring is often carried out at higher risk locations. Dangers to human health are extremely unlikely, but the findings do illustrate levels of pharmaceuticals in the environment.

Wastewater treatment plants were not initially designed to treat pharmaceuticals and are unable to treat some pharmaceuticals. So, tackling this complex issue requires “up-stream” actions.

This study recommends that further environmental research be done for areas of the country where few data are available, and, similarly, for groundwater, lochs, and coastal and estuarine waters. The study will be used by researchers, environmental regulators, the water industry, and the health service as a baseline to assess whether, and to what extent, future interventions and OHBP activities help to reduce pharmaceutical pollution.

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