Thomas Senac (Sanofi) and I presented a paper on the risk of pharmaceuticals in the environment at the EU FP7 PHARMAS programme conference in Nimes in 2013. Our view is that pharmaceuticals as a group do not pose any significant threat to the environment, although individual pharmaceuticals may do so. The paper has just been published in Chemosphere.


Concerns about the potential for significant environmental impact from residues of human pharmaceuticals emerged at the beginning of the 21st century. Since then there has been an exponential rise in the number of publications and conferences on this “problem”. However, this intense focus on human pharmaceuticals is misplaced. Pharmaceuticals do not consist of a coherent group of substances with similar chemical, structural, biological or toxicological properties. Pharmaceuticals are only identifiable from their use: in other words substances can be divided into two classes, those that are used as pharmaceuticals and those for which a possible pharmaceutical use has not yet been discovered. For example, nitro-glycerine, Warfarin and dimethyl fumarate, initially sold respectively as an explosive, a rodenticide and a mould inhibitor have subsequently all been used as pharmaceuticals.

As analytical science advances, an increasing range of environmental contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, is being identified at sub µg l-1 concentrations. Although, human and environmental exposure to these contaminants will be low, all of them need to be subjected to risk assessment on a case by case basis. Many of these substances, including human pharmaceuticals, may have little, if any, impact on human health or the environment, however for some substances there may be a significant risk and in these cases appropriate action should be taken. However considering allhuman pharmaceuticals as a special case, isolated from the wider range of emerging contaminants, is scientifically unjustifiable and diverts resources away from the consideration of other substances that may be of considerably more significance.