Earthwatch – Pharmaceuticals in the Environment

Big Pharma Dances Around Drugs in the Water

At around lunch time on day one of EnviroPharm 2006 — dubbed “the only environmental conference specifically for the pharmaceutical industry” — attendees were invited by one of the organizers to lunch in the dining hall at Lionhead Golf and Country Club. The suggestion was made that while eating, guests could enjoy the stunning view of this top-notch golf course, and, in her words, “enjoy the beauty of the environment.”

Was this merely a bad joke or pure ignorance.

Many golfers enjoy their game precisely for the communion with nature, however contrived that “nature” has become. But golf is not only unnatural, not only is golf not ecologically benign, but golf is an environmental disaster. Beginning with the clearcutting of virgin forests or encroachment onto agricultural land, to the artificial landscaping of hills and gullies and ponds, to the acres and acres of grass requiring intensive water use not to mention pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, golf is to nature what pharmaceuticals are to health: tenuously connected at the very best.

Which brings us to the focus of this Earthwatch and the reason for this gathering of representatives from the pharmaceutical industry, waste management companies, academics, government representatives and others: EnviroPharm 2006 (put on by the Environmental Advisiory Group, an environmental consulting firm specializing in healthcare and pharmaceutical issues) was a conference to look at the ecological issue of drugs ending up in the environment.

Given that the issue of pharmaceuticals in the environment is increasingly being reported upon, the issue is still a relatively unknown phenomenon to the general public. So an industry conference devoted to the issue seems like a step in the right direction. But just because the issue has been brought up since the 1990s in scientific literature, and now increasingly in the mainstream media, and just because the issue was being discussed at this conference, that doesn’t mean Big Pharma want to talk about it, let alone admit culpability.

Using the same blinders-on view of the world that sees a golf course described as a natural environment, Big Pharma want to make it clear that their drugs are good, their drugs are positive, and if trace amounts are turning up in your tap water, well, frankly, “don’t worry about it.”


The keynote speaker on day one of the conference was Dr. Mary Buzby, PhD, director of environmental technology for pharmaceutical giant Merck. Buzby was there, not necessarily as a representative of Merck, but rather she came as a representative of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

For this day at least, Dr. Buzby was the face of Big Pharma.

As all good reprsentatives do, Buzby presented a benevolent, caring industry keen to do everything possible to deal with this emerging issue, all while barely admitting it was an issue at all. Buzby made at least two things very clear during her presentation. One was that the main source — in PhRMA’s estimate, two thirds — of all pharmaceuticals that end up in the environment are as a result of people taking drugs. In other words, they end up in the water because they were not totally absorbed by the bodyand are passed out again in feces and urine.

Her second main point was that they are looking at this issue using a “science-based” approach, which seemed an odd point to emphasize. Was the implication being that others are not using science?

Her point was, presumably, that because the levels being found are so tiny, the risks should be analyzed scientifically rather than with fear-mongering from some who might be up in arms over finding out that Prozac is turning up in the water supply. Point taken.

“These are very, very small numbers we are talking about here,” Buzby told the conference. So why then, one might ask, were they talking about them at all?

Buzby wanted to make it clear that PhRMA were studying the issue and doing all they could to encourage takeback programs and promote the message that people should not flush old medications down the toilet the way the public has been told to do for decades. In short, PhRMA cares.

At the end of Buzby’s talk a few people asked questions, the very last one being, “Can you say categorically that, for example, 80% of the million pounds of drugs are taken back?” Buzby’s response: “Once a product belongs to a patient, we don’t know.”

But like much of what Buzby said this day, the implication was much broader. In this case it sure sounded like “we don’t know,” also meant, “we don’t care, nor should we be told we have to care.”

But as Thomas Pawlick points out in his new book, The End of Food, those who would defend the indefensible would like us to believe that science deals in absolutes. It doesn’t.

“The ‘researchers’ who worked for the tobacco industry insisted for decades, in the teeth of countless independent studies, that ‘there is no link between smoking nad cancer,’” Pawlick writes, “or between smoking and heart disease, etc. They insisted that unless we could prove that precisely the 216,000th cigarette smoked by John Smith after 20 years of his addiction definitely and individually triggered the onset of lung cancer in his body, to the exclusion of any other possible cause, no matter how farfetched, there was no ‘scientific’ proof of a link.”

Likewise Big Pharma will fight tooth and nail to deny any connection between the overuse of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant organisms, for example.


The pharma folks are going to great length to point out that there is no proven risk to human health. In fact, Buzby said categorically, “In no case does residues of pharmaceuticals present a risk to human health.”

The problem with this statement is that in reality no one knows. Saying that tiny amounts of SSRIs and heart medication turning up in your water tap presents no risk to human health is like saying that genetically modified foods will have no environmental risks in the long-term. We don’t know if that’s true because GMOs haven’t been around long enough to get a scientific assessment of what could happen. We also don’t really know if drugs in the water present a risk to human health because hardly anyone is studying the issue.

We don’t know if there is a risk so we are told that drugs in the water should be innocent until proven guilty.

Even stepping outside of the Precautionary Principle, which many argue should be guiding all our regulatory policies, there is another issue put most succinctly by Chris Metcalfe, a researcher at Trent University who has been studying the issue of pharmaceuticals in the environment, at Enviropharm: “We’re not the only organisms on the planet.”

Metcalfe spoke after Buzby and delicately mentioned that there are “varied points of view on this topic.” His point, from a truly science-based approach, is not that small amounts of drugs turning up in water supplies all over the world is necessarily a matter of dire concern. But that because there are so many unanswered questions regarding things like antibiotic-resistant organisms and what happens when a 10-year-old child ingests heart medication in the parts per trillion, maybe we should adopt a precautionary approach instead of the standard industry risk analysis model.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” Metcalfe told the conference. “I just want to point out the gaps.”


In March the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy released a report written by Susan Holtz titled “There is no ‘away’ – Pharmaceutical, personal care and endocrine-disrupting substances: emerging contaminants detected in water.”

The title of Holtz’s analysis of pharmaceuticals in the environment speaks volumes about not only this issue, but about how society needs to look at all pollutants, and all human behaviour. There really is no away, even once you’ve popped your pills.

Holtz’s study recommends, among other things; more money for research, a review of licensing of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, phasing out prophylactic and preventive uses of antibiotics and hormones, and supporting organic agricultural production.

Holtz also spoke at EnviroPharm suggesting that the huge rise in legal drug use since the 1950s is at least in part responsible for the discovery of more and more drugs in water. Despite this, when asked by Vitality why the report suggested support for organics, but not support for alternative medicine and natural health, her response was: “We decided to leave that to the medical profession. We are not a medical organization.”

But then again, they aren’t an agricultural organization either.

• To read the CIELAP report visit

• Environmental Advisory Group at


Write a Comment

view all comments