A summary of the results of the research project and further options for potential cooperative action to consider under SAICM is provided in a short brochure available in four languages (Chinese, English, French, Spanish).


Pharmaceuticals are a fundamental element of modern medicine and confer significant benefits to society. Their active ingredients comprise a variety of synthetic chemicals produced in both the industrialized and the developing world at ca. 100’000 tons per year. While pharmaceuticals are stringently regulated for patient safety, adverse side effects in the environment are not yet covered by any international agreement or arrangement.

Pharmaceutical residues have been increasingly measured in the environment over the past decade, mostly in surface waters, but also in groundwater, soil, manure, biota, and even in drinking water.

Since pharmaceuticals are specifically designed to cause pharmacological effects in living organisms, it is not surprising that a growing body of literature has shown that pharmaceuticals are having adverse effects on wildlife and ecosystem health. It is challenging to assess the potential longterm health risks of trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, especially given that drinking water is currently not systematically monitored for pharmaceutical residues.


Nomination as an emerging policy issue under SAICM

Under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), “Environmentally Persistent Pharmaceutical Pollutants (EPPP)” is nominated as a new emerging policy issue for the Conference to consider at its fourth session. An extended nomination dossier (SAICM/OEWG.2/INF/15) has been submitted by the Ministry of Environment of Peru, the Ministry of Housing, Land Planning and Environment of Uruguay and the International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE) for consideration at the Open-ended Working Group OEWG2.


Research Project

The German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has initiated a research project awarded to IWW Water Centre and adelphi to define the state of knowledge on the global relevance of pharmaceuticals in the environment. Main goals of the project were:

- Compile Measured Environmental Concentrations (MEC) of human and veterinary pharmaceuticals
from all five UN regions.

- Compare regional consumption data and future trends.

- Assess the relevance of emission pathways (production, use, disposal) on a global scale.

- Assess the role of infrastructure, population, pharmaceutical availability, agricultural practice, etc. on
emissions of pharmaceuticals into the environment.

- Provide databases and maps to illustrate the global relevance of pharmaceuticals in the environment
as an emerging issue.

- Prepare possible activities for inclusion into the global plan for action.



A database of Measured Environmental Concentrations  (MEC) has been compiled from 1016 publications, comprising 123,000 database entries. The analysis shows that:

- Pharmaceuticals have been detected in the environment in 71 countries, covering all five UN regional groups

- 631 different pharmaceuticals (and their transformation products) have been measured in the environment, with partial overlap between regions

- Several globally marketed pharmaceuticals have been found in both developing and industrialized countries

- In many countries, pharmaceuticals have been measured at ecotoxicologically relevant concentrations

- Urban wastewater discharge is a dominant emission pathway globally, but emissions from production, animal husbandry, and aquaculture can be important locally


Conclusion:  Pharmaceuticals are globally found in the environment, not just in industrialized countries.

Fig. 1 Global occurrence of pharmaceuticals: Countries in which pharmaceuticals have been measured and detected in the environment.


Potential Cooperative Action under SAICM

Cooperative action under SAICM could initiate a voluntary multi-stakeholder, life-cycle approach needed to prevent, reduce, and manage pharmaceuticals entering the environment on a global scale. Action can be taken without compromising the effectiveness, availability, or affordability of medical treatment. Suitable activities may differ between countries and should be selected based on regional conditions. First steps may include raising of global awareness, up-to-date scientific advise to policy makers, capacity building, and disposal schemes building on initiatives at the international, regional, and national level.