Plant shoot in test tube

Pharma and the environment: One relationship that can’t go to waste

What do population growth, longer life expectancy and increased access to cheaper generic medicines have in common?

They all contribute to the increasingly complex and reciprocal relationship between the global pharmaceutical industry and the environment, and this blog will cover some of the concerns and solutions associated with this relationship.


Allergic to change – The impact of climate change on pharma

Climate change is increasing the impact of aero-allergens and the prevalence of algal toxins. Increasingly adverse weather patterns are changing pollen ranges and production levels, which in turn extend hay fever season (1). The introduction of new pollens may also trigger symptoms in those without previous allergies, meanwhile rising temperatures increase mould spore concentrations, which is particularly troublesome for populations that spend plenty of time indoors.

Changing weather patterns have the potential to impact coastal communities by increasing cyanobacteria, causing an increased exposure to algal toxins (1). So how do these factors impact the pharmaceutical industry? One consideration is the potential exacerbation of pre-existing respiratory conditions, which would increase the demand for pharmaceutical treatment (1).


Biting off more than we can ‘chew’ – the Pharma industry’s impact on the environment

Pharmaceutical usage in the UK alone is expected to double by 2052 (1), which may impact the volume of emissions and discharge levels from drug manufacturing (2). Pharmaceutical waste has already contributed to the deaths of millions of vultures in India due to exposure to diclofenac (1); the feminisation of fish due to oestrogen in sewage effluents and the global spread of antibiotic resistance (2). When ordering a seafood dish, do you ask for the house special, sprinkled with antidepressants? Chances are, your cocktail shrimp may contain traces of Prozac, due to our marine life absorbing traces of pharmaceutical drugs excreted by humans which end up in our sewers (5).

Meanwhile, the decline of the American horseshoe crab is partially attributed to their capture and use by pharmaceutical companies, due to their copper-based blood’s properties capable of detecting contaminants in medical equipment. The close relations between regulatory bodies [for the crab species’ harvesting] and the pharmaceutical industry remains questionable (3).

Discrepancies remain in our data and understanding of the total risks of excreted pharmaceutically active by-products and the impacts of pharma manufacturing practices on the environment.


Ongoing solutions

From asthma flare-ups to toxic algae and decreasing crab populations, what exactly is being done to combat these issues, and what more can be done to improve the impact of the pharma industry and the environment on one another?

One concept emerging in popularity is the green pharmacy, which is characterised by “the design of pharmaceutical products and processes that eliminate or reduce the use and generation of hazardous substances along the whole life cycle. This includes preventing environmental or health and safety impacts at [the] source” (4). One example of the pharma industry adopting green pharmacy is the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)’s launch of a tool used to calculate the carbon footprint of pharmaceutical products (1).

The development of the tool was funded by AZ, GSK, J&J, Lilly and Pfizer. In collaboration with the Carbon Trust, the carbon footprint of tablet medicines distributed in their blister packs was measured. Meanwhile, Sweden has implemented a database called The Janus, which allows physicians to check whether medicines are “green” before prescribing them (1).

Drug markets continue to have a strong presence in various global rankings for corporate sustainability and environmental impact (5) but it seems we are only at the beginning of a long journey in creating a system in which the pharma industry and the environment reduce negative impacts on one another. The extent of the relationship between pharma and the environment remains yet to be fully understood – as for the consequences they have on our environment and pharmaceutical consumption.


By Karina Sharipova

Head of Research – Executive Search Division








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