Public health disaster on the cards if pharmaceutical pollution is left unchecked

Pollution from pharmaceutical plants is harming ecosystems and leading to the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) which could see more and more people dying from previously treatable diseases

Mr Timmermans,

We write in relation to the risks to human health and the environment posed by releases of pharmaceuticals into the environment. In particular, we are very concerned about how these releases affect ecosystems and are contributing to the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), one of the major threats to human health today. We would like to discuss with you the opportunities that the Commission has in the coming months to spearhead action against the global rise of drug resistance, including within the framework of its Proposal for a Regulation on veterinary medicinal products and its upcoming Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment.

In its report on Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern, UN Environment identifies growing AMR linked to the discharge of drugs and particular chemicals into the environment as one of the most worrying health threats today. Indeed, experts view the promotion of antibiotic resistant bacteria as “by far the greatest human health risk” posed by the presence of pharmaceutical residues in the environment and note that, in addition to fostering the spread of resistant pathogens, antibiotic residues can also turn harmless environmental bacteria into carriers of resistance.

Europe’s AMR burden in terms of lives lost, morbidity, healthcare costs and productivity losses is much greater than currently available statistics suggest. Recent projections estimate a 15-fold increase in morbidity in Europe due to AMR by 2050, with 390,000 deaths every year as a result of drug-resistant infections. The use of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming promotes the development of resistant bacterial strains and the environment plays not only an important role in the spread of those, but also wildlife organisms and ecosystem services are at risk.

We are concerned that the pharmaceutical industry is currently excluded from any kind of environmental legislation, which is untenable in the light of the risk that pharmaceutical pollution poses to the environment and to human health. We expect legislative action from the Commission to tackle this issue, similar to the regulation of the chemical industry through REACH.

Since AMR is a quintessential cross-border issue, it is important that the EU-One Health Action Plan against AMR is supported by policy measures and legislation in other areas, along the lines with those proposed in our recent briefing on policy options to be considered in the context of the Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment and the proposal for a Regulation on veterinary medicinal products to ensure that we tackle the problem in a comprehensive way.

We would therefore like to request a meeting with you to discuss the main policy measures available to successfully tackle this problem.


  • European Environmental Bureau, joint letter, 10 April 2018.
    Public health disaster on the cards if pharmaceutical pollution left unchecked say campaigners, metamag, 12 Apr 2018.
  • Policy options for regulating pharmaceuticals in the environment, eeb, Feb 2018.
  • Prevention is better than cure: Europe’s chance to act on AMR is now, epha, May 8, 2017.
  • Ecological Impacts of Veterinary Pharmaceuticals: More Transparency-Better Protection of the Environment, pan-germany.
  • Antibiotics in Livestock Farming. What can be done to reduce environmental threats and avoid the development of antibiotic
    resistance? pan-germany.
  • Antimicrobial resistance from environmental pollution among biggest emerging health threats, says UN Environment, unenvironment, dec 2017.
    Improving environmental risk assessment of human pharmaceutical, American Chemical Society, 2015.
  • Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling a crisis for the health and wealth of nations, amr-review, 2014.
  • Image credit oceancrusaders.

Have your say! Share your views