Throwing it all away

throwing away pills in the garbage

Pharmacists falling short on knowledge of negative environmental effects of drugs, study finds

Pharmacists require more information themselves on the negative impacts of pharmaceuticals on the environment if they are to take a lead role in the more sustainable use of pharmaceuticals, authors of a new Australian study claim.

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology interviewed 64 hospital pharmacists and pharmacy technicians about their knowledge and understanding of the impact of pharmaceuticals on the environment and the handling of pharmaceutical waste.

The study revealed a range of shortcomings in the participants’ awareness and knowledge in this area, and this would hamper any role of pharmacists in leading the public or colleagues, they believed.

“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 said.

Most participants responded vaguely about the impacts of pharmaceuticals entering the environment, contamination of the environment and harm to wildlife, they found.

Some felt the bigger danger with incorrect disposal lay in the risk of drugs falling into the hands of the general public rather than with any environmental impact.

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

The authors said pharmacists needed information on a range of issues around the negative impacts of pharmaceuticals on the environment, including the entry points of pharmaceuticals
into the environment and that sewerage treatment plants do not remove pharmaceuticals from waste water.

While all participants reported appropriate practices with the disposal of contaminated pharmaceutical waste into clinical waste bins, the findings indicated this was to comply
with hospital policy rather than due to any environmental concern.

“For instance, only a few participants knew that high temperature incineration is the best practice method of disposal for contaminated pharmaceutical waste (as recommended by the WHO), and that the hospital’s external waste contractor disposed of the hospital’s clinical waste by this method.

With regards to non-contaminated waste, most participants reported disposing of it in general waste bins destined for landfill.

 A “pervasive thread in the discourse”, particularly from pharmacists, was the attitude that “we already do the right thing” by putting unwanted medicines in bins for incineration, the authors found.

“This attitude of ‘we are already doing the right thing and that’s all we need to worry about’ is suggestive that hospital pharmacists operate in professional silos”.

The study, of which Judith Singleton was lead author, was published in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice 

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  1. Christie Younger

    Where do we go to learn though?

  2. Jarrod McMaugh

    The majority of pharmaceuticals entering the environment is via human waste. RUM bins go a long way to preventing entry from expired/returned items, but until sewerage systems remove pharmaceuticals from waste water, there’s little that can be done by pharmacists to impact this entry point.

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