Leading Article

Drug Safety

, Volume 31, Issue 12, pp 1069-1082

First online:

The Afterlife of Drugs and the Role of PharmEcovigilance

  • Christian G. DaughtonAffiliated withEnvironmental Chemistry Branch, National Exposure Research Laboratory, US Environmental Protection Agency Email author 
  • , Ilene Sue RuhoyAffiliated withBasic and Clinical Sciences, Touro University Nevada, College of Osteopathic Medicine

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The prescribing and usage of medications (for both humans and domestic animals) have ramifications extending far beyond the traditional objectives of conventional medical care. The healthcare industry has an environmental footprint that includes the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) from medications, residues of which can establish themselves as environmental pollutants. This occurs by a variety of routes, but primarily from excretion, bathing and disposal. Many parallels exist between healthcare and the protection and remediation of the environment, spanning the stages from symptomology and diagnosis to treatment. The critical role played by pharmacovigilance in healthcare has a counterpart with the ecological environment. The term ecopharmacovigilance has been used with respect to the unforeseen consequences APIs can have once they enter the environment. We propose that conventional pharmacovigilance could be expanded to encompass environmental concerns — a concept we term pharmEcovigilance — as a way to unify the parallel but interconnected needs for protecting both human and ecological health.

To convey the scope of a pharmEcovigilance programme, we provide an overview of the occurrence of APIs as environmental pollutants, their ramifications for human health and the environment and some of the ways in which their impact could be reduced or minimized. The major areas discussed include: (i) the routes by which APIs become contaminants in the environment; (ii) the hazards of leftover drugs as a result of stockpiling and from disposal to sewage, which can also eventually contribute to the contamination of drinking water; (iii) why drugs accumulate unused; and (iv) the benefits for humans and the environment that could accrue from reducing the accumulation of leftover drugs and the subsequent introduction of APIs into the environment.

A broad spectrum of actions could be taken by prescribers (including veterinarians) and the healthcare industry at large (including manufacturers and insurers) to reduce the release or introduction of APIs to the environment. Most significantly, however, a major reason to consider implementing a pharmEcovigilance programme — beyond reducing the environmental footprint of healthcare — is the previously unforeseen collateral benefit in making further progress in optimizing the delivery, effectiveness, outcomes and cost of healthcare, as well as improving safety for humans, pets and wildlife.

For this reason, the relationships that healthcare professionals and patients have with medications might also include consideration of pharmEcovigilance. Like any profession that deals with chemicals, perhaps a major challenge to be faced is how to ensure the sustainability (and minimize the life cycle exposure hazards) of a chemical-based, chemical-centric society in the most cost-effective and safest manner. Given that the medical community is a major source of numerous ‘exotic’ chemical pollutants in the environment (with thousands of chemically distinct APIs in current use), albeit at very low levels, an imperative could be created for designing and implementing approaches for reducing and controlling this source of pollution. With reduced wastage of medications, in part driven by appropriate or rational prescribing and dispensing, the ecological footprint of medicine could be greatly reduced, with concomitant improvements in many aspects of healthcare.