Human medicines are entering Scotland's water courses.

New tool will shed light on human medicines in water

A new data visualisation tool to help researchers better understand the effects human medicines have on Scotland’s waters has been launched by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) on behalf of the One Health Breakthrough Partnership (OHBP).

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Pharmaceuticals in the Water Environment is the first open access interactive tool in the UK to combine national environmental and prescribing data. With data for 60 medicines detected in river water, raw wastewater and treated wastewater, it is designed to help researchers, academics, health professionals and environmental scientists develop a better understanding of the link between medicine use and the presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment.

The main route for human medicines to enter the water environment is via people’s toilets, SEPA said in a press release. Some of this is due to the way our bodies metabolise medicines – between 30% and 100% of the active ingredient in an oral dose ends up being flushed away after people go to the toilet.

Down the sink

Around one in 10 people also throw old and unused medicines down the sink or toilet instead of returning them to a pharmacy for safe disposal.

In both situations, medicines can end up in sewage in wastewater treatment works not been designed to remove such pollutants, and are then discharged to the water environment.

Pollution of the water environment by medicines can negatively affect aquatic life by impacting their growth, behaviour, reproduction, and survival. In most cases the concentrations of medicines in the water environment are much lower than the therapeutic dose, which makes it difficult to determine what impact they may be having.

Antimicrobial resistance

Medicines in the environment may also be contributing to an increase in bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that no longer respond to medicines (known as antimicrobial resistance or AMR) and to the spread of antibiotic resistance in people. Making the data contained within the visualisation tool easily accessible means they can be used to inform research and improve wider understanding of these issues.

John Redshaw, SEPA principal specialist scientist and an OHBP lead, said: “SEPA is working with the OHBP and other UK partners to identify and prioritise the medicines that are presenting the greatest risks to our water environments and to explore ways in which such information might be used to inform prescribing of medicines and future regulatory standards.”

Future interventions will target medicines which pose the highest environmental risk, giving prescribers and patients more information on the environmental effects of medicines, said SEPA. A key part of reducing the quantity of pharmaceuticals that enter sewerage systems is through educating people about the possible environmental effects of what they stock in their medicine cabinet and encouraging them to return unused medicines to pharmacies for proper disposal.