Knowledge gap

Pharmacists remain clueless on impact of medicines on the environment, study finds

Australian pharmacists need information and training on the negative impacts that pharmaceuticals can have on the environment, researchers say.

A study of 64 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in five Queensland hospitals found they had a “lack of environmental knowledge regarding the impact of pharmaceuticals on the environment and lack of understanding of systems thinking concepts (that all living things are part of one environment or system, and any negative environmental impacts will ultimately have negative impacts on human health)”.

Most interviewees were unsure as to the best practice methods for disposal of pharmaceutical waste, and assumed that if they complied with hospital policy, appropriate disposal was occurring.

“All participants reported appropriate practices with the disposal of contaminated pharmaceutical waste into clinical waste bins,” the authors said. “The findings from the interviews would indicate this was to comply with hospital policy rather than due to any environmental concern.”

They highlighted the fact only a few of the subjects knew high temperature incineration was the best practice method of disposal for contaminated pharmaceutical waste. Most reported disposing of non-contaminated waste in general waste bins destined for landfill.

One fact the authors found concerning was the lack of association between the impact of pharmaceuticals entering the environment and its impact on human health. Most respondents were vague in their view on this, they said, with many indicating the bigger danger with incorrect disposal was drugs falling into the hands of the general public.

Only two (3.13%) participants directly linked the entry of pharmaceuticals into the environment with impacts on human health.  

The authors, Judith Singleton, Esther Lau and Lisa Nissen from the Queensland University of Technology, said pharmacists’ required information on topics such as the entry points of pharmaceuticals into the environment, and that sewerage treatment plants did not remove pharmaceuticals from waste water.   

In addition, they called for pharmacists to have “education on systems thinking to enable them [pharmacists] to understand that any negative impacts on the environment will ultimately have negative impacts on human health.”

“Until this knowledge gap is addressed, the pharmacy profession will struggle to take up a leadership role in ensuring the more sustainable use of pharmaceuticals, and reducing the carbon footprint of pharmaceutical care,” the authors concluded.

The study was published in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Crothers

    This is a bit disingenuous. What are pharmacists expected to do about the large majority of pharmaceuticals that enter the environment in faeces and urine? Encourage people to hoard their bodily waste and incinerate it?? Give us a break: this is a problem for waste engineers. Pharmacists can have no material impact beyond using approved methods of disposal at the practice level and trust in the environmental authorities to take it from there. We have other things to do with our time.

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