Managing the impact of drugs in the European environment
A recent report raises awareness of the impact of pharmaceuticals in the environment. Experts from science, industry and the state sector have drawn up a series of proposals for actions that need to be taken at the European level to increase understanding and improve management of the risks.
The size of the pharmaceuticals market in Europe has grown and both human and veterinary medicines have the potential to harm the environment, particularly through wastewater. Despite advances in personalised medicines, ageing populations are likely to increase the consumption of medicines in the future, potentially increasing the bioaccumulation of drugs in the environment.
Two examples of pharmaceuticals adversely affecting wildlife have been well documented: ethinyl estradiol (EE2), a derivative of the hormone oestrogen, is thought to be responsible for feminising male fish. Diclofenac, which is used as an anti-inflammatory drug in cattle, has killed millions of vultures in Asia that have eaten the bodies of dead animals. However, the impact on small organisms may be less obvious and therefore not reported.
Recommendations for action from the experts include:
- Assess the impact of drugs across the whole life-cycle, from production, through consumption to disposal. Regulatory frameworks are based largely on the impact of single drugs and need to be updated to reflect the possible impact mixtures of pharmaceuticals might have in the environment.
- Develop greener pharmacy. Green pharmacy has been defined as 'the design of pharmaceutical products and processes that eliminate or reduce the use and generation of hazardous substances along the whole life cycle'. Pharmaceutical companies should be offered incentives to adopt a green chemistry approach. Rather than imposing extra costs or penalties on non-green products, the patent period for a green drug could be extended, for example. In addition, research in the EU should be directed towards developing greener drugs that break down after use.
- Improve waste management. In order to reduce the disposal of pharmaceuticals in household waste, schemes in which pharmacies take back unused drugs should be harmonised in the EU. Proposals for changes to the EC Directive1 on human medicines should include extending the risk-benefit balance to incorporate environmental risks in addition to public and patient health risks. Many drugs enter the environment through wastewater. Sewage contains drugs and by-products eliminated from the body and householders flush unused drugs down the sink. Wastewater treatment plants vary in their ability to remove pharmaceuticals depending on the type of drug and type of water treatment: modern methods, such as ultraviolet treatments or advanced oxidation processes, should be considered.
- Ensure information on the effects of pharmaceuticals on the environment is available to guide the public and policymakers, including EU and government authorities, pharmaceutical companies, health care staff, patients and water authorities. An environmental risk classification scheme, such as is in use in Stockholm, could be extended across Europe.
Enhanced monitoring of the fate and impact of pharmaceutical products in the environment is required. In addition, the experts suggest it would be beneficial to have a European database of research projects and results.
- See: Directive 2001/83/EC http://www.ema.europa.eu/pdfs/human/pmf/2001-83-EC.pdf
Source: European Environment Agency. (2010). Pharmaceuticals in the environment. Results of an EEA workshop. EEA Technical report No 1/2010. The report can be accessed at: http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/pharmaceuticals-in-the-environment-result-of-an-eea-workshop
Theme(s): Chemicals, Environment and health, Waste
Identifying sources of metallic pollution to implement the WFD
- See: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-framework/index_en.html
Source: Chon, H., Ohandja, D. & Voulvoulis, N. (2010). Implementation of E.U. Water Framework Directive: source assessment of metallic substances at catchment levels. Journal of Environmental Monitoring. 12: 36-47.
Theme(s): Chemicals, Water
A new study has indicated that metallic pollutants in river basins have more sources than other dangerous substances. Sources include stormwater, industrial effluents, treated effluents, agricultural drainage, sediments, mining drainage and landfills.
The EU Water Framework Directive1 requires Member States to take actions to achieve good chemical and ecological status of surface and ground water by 2015. It has identified 33 priority substances plus 8 other pollutants that are harmful to ecosystems and aquatic systems and include cadmium, mercury, lead and nickel. As a starting point, Member States are required to identify all sources of emissions affecting water quality in river basins.
The study identified and assessed the main human sources of metallic substances in receiving waters and summarised research findings in this area.
The effects of stormwater on metal levels in water have increased with urbanisation. Levels of cadmium, lead, copper and zinc in stormwater can be as high as those found in raw sewage and wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) effluent. The atmosphere, traffic and building materials are the most significant sources of metals in stormwater. Traffic wastes from sources, such as brake linings and road dust, generate substantial metal levels in water run-off from roads, particularly zinc but also lead and cadmium. Building materials used in roof coverings affect concentrations of mainly copper, lead and zinc in roof run-off.
The influence of metals due to effluents from industry will vary with country because each Member State implements its own regulations on treatment before discharge into receiving waters.
Effluents from WWTPs contribute significantly to a wide range of metal concentrations. The source of these can be household products, commercial effluents (especially car washing) and drinking water. Although WWTPs reduce total levels of metals, a proportion of dissolved metals remains untreated, particularly nickel. Metal levels in drinking water are influenced by geological conditions, plumbing systems and purification processes. The sewage system itself gives rise to metal inputs due to copper sewage pipes and, if left for a long time, the sewage sediments can cause metals to remix in the water.
Agriculture is another source of metals. Phosphate fertilisers release both cadmium and zinc, whilst sewage sludge used as a fertiliser may be a source of nickel, cadmium and zinc.
The research listed several additional factors that can increase metal concentrations. Sediments are an integral part of water systems but also a potential source of metal pollutants. The contribution of sediments to metal concentrations in waters has been estimated to be 20 per cent for cadmium, 30 per cent for copper and 10 per cent for zinc. The mining industry can also emit metals into water from mine waste, such as tailings and mine water. Landfills contribute to metal concentrations due to rainwater flowing through waste that contains metals. Lastly, sporting activities such as boating, fishing and shooting, also contribute to metal concentrations.
The study has outlined several important sources of metallic pollutants. Further research is needed to evaluate the relative contributions of each source on a case-by-case basis and to investigate the influence of societal and environmental conditions, for example, by collecting data on household practices and rainfall specific to catchment areas.
Health impacts of air pollution need better communication
- See: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/newprg/index.htm
- See: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/archives/cafe/general/keydocs.htm
- See: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/quality/legislation/existing_leg.htm
- Apheis (Air Pollution and Health: A European Information System) was supported by the European Commission's Directorate General of Health and Consumer Protection. See: www.apheis.net
Source: Medina, S., Le Tertre, A., & Saklad, M. (2009). The Apheis project: Air Pollution and Health - A European Information System. Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health. 2: 185-198.
Theme(s): Air pollution, Environment and health, Environmental information services
Reductions in air pollution in European cities significantly reduce the number of premature deaths, according to researchers. However, these results need to be communicated effectively to policy makers in order to have an impact.
One of the four main target areas of the EU's Sixth Environment Action Programme (EAP)1 is Environment and Health, which includes air pollution. Particulate matter is of special concern and the Clean Air For Europe (CAFÉ)2 programme estimated that there are 348,000 premature deaths in Europe each year associated with PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). The EU Air Quality Directive3 has set new air quality objectives for PM2.5.
The EU supported Apheis project (Air Pollution and Health - A European Information System)4 was started in 1999 to track the effects of air pollution on health in 26 European cities. It also tracked how results are communicated to policy makers to better understand how research findings are converted into action.
The project used indicators, such as premature death and life expectancy, for a health impact assessment (HIA) of PM10 and PM2.5. It identified 26 urban centres that could implement these HIAs. To analyse the path of communication between research findings and policy, the researchers interviewed 32 individuals involved in air pollution and health policy in the UK and Spain.
In 23 cities that measured PM10 totalling almost 36 million inhabitants the study indicated that, if all other things were equal, and long term exposure to PM10 was reduced to 20ug per m3 in each city, then more than 21,000 premature deaths could be prevented annually. The main causes of these deaths are cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and cancer.
Considering PM2.5, the study estimated that, all other things equal, more than 11,000 premature deaths could be prevented annually if long-term exposure to PM2.5 levels were reduced to 20 ug/m3 in each city; and that almost 17,000 premature deaths could be prevented annually if long-term exposure to PM2.5 were reduced to 15 ug/m3. This means the benefits of reducing levels to 15 ug/m3 is over 30 per cent greater than for a reduction to 20 ug/m3.
The EU Air Quality Directive has set an exposure concentration obligation of 20 ug/m3 for PM2.5 in urban areas by 2015. This obligation is based on the national average exposure indicator, calculated from monitored concentrations from selected stations placed in urban background locations. These results suggest a greater health benefit of setting the target value at 15 ug/m3.
The research on the communication to policy makers indicated that policy advisors and makers are generally unlikely to use standard scientific reports. A long complex chain of many players leads from the scientists to the policy makers. On the basis of this a strategy was developed to communicate Apheis's findings along the whole chain.
This suggested that research findings should be shaped to the different needs of scientific and policy users. For example, policy users tend to require distilled information with clear messages and implications for policy. This could be done with a range of communications tools beyond scientific reports, such as summary reports, interviews, brochures, presentations and Q&As. By ensuring a firm link to policy, important research findings on air pollution may have a greater impact.
Beach structure explains persistence of 1989 oil spill
In 1989 a large oil tanker famously ran aground off the Alaskan coast, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of the Prince William Sound. Over 20 years later oil still contaminates some of the nearby gravel beaches. A recent study suggests it is the physical condition of the beaches that has caused the oil to persist. This research could provide guidelines for remediating susceptible beaches worldwide.
The coastline affected by the oil spill is an environmentally important area that supports fisheries and a variety of wildlife. In 1992 the shoreline clean-up was stopped after it was assumed that the rate of the oil's disappearance was sufficient to ensure it would be completely removed within a few years. However, patches of oil remain in some gravel beaches, persisting much longer than expected.
In this study, the researchers conducted field studies on six beaches during the summers of 2007, 2008 and 2009 and used models to explain the results, including why some locations were free of oil while others were heavily oiled below the surface. The report focuses on one beach which the researchers suggest is typical of what happens on other beaches in the area. One side of the beach was free of oil and the other side remained contaminated below the surface.
The beach consists of an upper, open-structured, highly absorbent gravel layer overlying a more densely packed lower layer with low penetrability. On the clean side of the beach, the upper layer is deep, and the interface between the upper and lower layer is below the level of the water table. In contrast, the upper layer is shallow in contaminated areas, so that the interface between the upper and lower layers lies above the level of the water table.
During low tide, the water table in the beach was recharged with freshwater from the landside of the beach. This means that during low tide in the clean areas, as seawater levels fall, the water table remains above the interface of the two layers and is recharged by the inflow of freshwater from the landward side of the beach. The high absorbency of the upper layer ensures a large inflow of freshwater. Therefore oil floating on the surface of the water in clean areas cannot enter the lower layer even as the tide falls.
In contaminated areas, however, during low tide the water table remains in contact with the lower layer and freshwater inflow is small. This means that the open structure of the upper layer acts as a temporary reservoir for the oil which gradually filters into the lower layer whenever the water table drops below the interface of the two layers. Once in the lower layer, the oil is trapped.
In addition, groundwater water travelling through the lower layer flows slowly (about 30 metres every six months). By the time the water reaches oil patches in the mid-intertidal zone it is depleted of the oxygen needed to biodegrade the oil.
With climate change likely to cause greater melting of ice in the Arctic region, the potential for oil exploration and shipping through sea routes such as the Northwest Passage will increase. Gravel and gravel/sand beaches there and similar beaches found in high latitudes will be further at risk from oil spills.
Source: Li, H. and Boufadel, M.C. (2010). Long-term persistence of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in two-layer beaches. Nature Geoscience. 3(2): 96-99.
Theme(s):Chemicals, Marine ecosystems
What is the best 'school run' for the environment?
New research indicates that educational policies can affect the environmental, health and financial impacts of school commuting. It found that the most effective school-enrolment policy for reducing traffic emissions is to send children to the school closest to where they live.
School commuting emits both air pollutants and CO2. The US study explored the influence of school policy on the environmental impacts of school commuting. Traditionally, elementary school children attended the school closest to where they live, but the 2002 'No Child Left Behind' Act encouraged school districts to allow parents to choose which school to send their child to, without limiting how far the school is from the child's home. Although this school choice has received support from parents, few studies have evaluated its effect on school transportation.
Using results from a survey, the study predicted the impact of five policy scenarios for one school district on travel choice and emissions of five pollutants: carbon monoxide, CO2, PM10, nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The scenarios were as follows:
- Current scenario, where students continue to attend the same school as present;
- Random scenario, where students are assigned to a random school;
- Neighbourhood only scenario, where students are re-assigned to the school closest to where they live;
- Regional choice scenario, where parents can choose from several schools, but only those in the local area; and,
- Increased walking scenario, where all children within a certain distance of school commute via walking.
The neighbourhood only policy scenario eliminated school choice and predicted a four to five fold reduction in average travel distance. Walking rates were predicted to increase by three to four times. However, previous research has shown that if school commuting distances are reduced, parents may be more willing to drive their children to school instead of sending them on the bus. Thus, the use of cars was also predicted to increase but, due to shorter commutes, the total distance travelled by car was halved. The total emissions were predicted to be 3-8 times lower for this scenario than the current scenario, depending on the pollutant.
In the regional choice scenario the travel distance was predicted to remain nearly unchanged, as were the rates of walking. It was predicted that car usage would increase but bus usage would fall leading to a 13 per cent net drop in nitrous oxide emissions but a 4 to 45 per cent increase in the remaining pollutants.
In the increased walking scenario the 27 per cent of the students that live within a mile of the school they currently attend were assigned to walking. The walking rate and distance was predicted to at least double. Car use was predicted to fall by 8 per cent and the predicted effect on emissions was a decrease of 1 to 12 per cent.
The results indicated that school-assignment policy could affect the environmental impacts of the school commute. The predicted reductions in emissions for the increased walking and regional choice scenarios were surprisingly modest. This could be because many people choose to attend to a school that is further than a mile away from their home, so are not obliged to walk. For the regional choice scenario, the researchers assigned students to a school that could in fact have been further than their previous school.
Because the study focuses on environmental impacts, it does not evaluate possible advantages of school choice, such as increased racial and socioeconomic integration or parental choice. However, it does highlight potential environmental, health, and economic benefits of locating schools relatively closer to students' homes. Although European policy does not necessarily encourage school choice, it is useful to understand the possible impacts of such a policy stance and the possible reasons for why some policies, such as the one designed to increase walking, may not fulfil their potential.
Source: Marshall, J.D., Wilson, R.D., Meyer, K.L. et al. (2010). Vehicle Emissions during Children's School Commuting: Impacts of Education Policy. Environmental Science & Technology. Doi: 10.1021/es902932n.
Theme(s): Air pollution, Sustainable mobility
Sustainably managed drylands can help address climate change
Maintaining and restoring the world's drylands or arid zones could provide a win-win option for addressing climate change, according to new research. Drylands not only store large amounts of carbon, but improving how they are managed could reduce the vulnerability of ecosystems and humans.
Drylands are characterised by low and erratic rainfall; examples are the African Sahel, Australian Outback and South American Patagonia. They occupy 41 per cent of the earth's land area and are home to 2 billion people. However, desertification and land degradation are reducing their capacity to sustain ecosystems and human livelihoods.
The research outlined the importance of drylands. Some two thirds of the global dryland area is used for livestock production, a source of livelihood for many pastoral communities. It has been estimated that soil carbon sequestration in dryland ecosystems could achieve about 1 billion tonnes of carbon per year. Not only is this one of the world's largest terrestrial carbon sinks, but increasing levels of carbon in the soil increases its capacity to retain water and sustain biodiversity.
Some 12-18 billion tonnes of carbon have already been lost due to desertification, and this figure could increase with climate change. Climate change has also affected the biodiversity of drylands, partly through temperature and precipitation change but also through overgrazing of plants, and land use change.
The restoration and good management of drylands could contribute to both adaptation and mitigation for climate change, as well as increasing food security, protecting biodiversity and reducing risk of drought and flooding. Good management practices include restoring organic matter to soils, reducing erosion and decreasing losses from burning.
Livestock also play a role and there are several 'good grazing' techniques, such as using grazing to stimulate grasses, providing adequate recovery time following grazing and adapting grazing patterns to the impacts of climate change on the plant community. The IPCC estimates that restoration of grasslands and good grazing land management can globally store between 100 and 800 Megatonnes of CO2 equivalents per year. If managed correctly these techniques could lead to healthier grasslands, which in turn could increase livestock productivity.
The study identified a number of barriers to good dryland management, such as unclear land tenure due to the 'common property status' of most drylands and competition from crops, including those used for biofuels. Policies which focus on reducing livestock rather than grazing management are another obstacle. Good management would also be helped by policies which acknowledge the carbon sequestration value of drylands. Existing international carbon trading mechanisms, such as the Clean Development Mechanism do not currently address grazing lands or soil carbon accumulation.
The research indicated that well-managed pastoralism could simultaneously secure livelihoods, conserve ecosystem services, improve carbon sequestration and honour cultural values and traditions. It called for greater support for sustainable pastoral systems. This could include providing incentives to support sustainable and adapted management of drylands, establishing policies that address barriers, such as land tenure, conducting targeted research, such as measuring the amount of carbon sequestration and promoting approaches that integrate the local, national and global aims. It was suggested that some of this could be achieved through Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+).
Source: Neely, C., Bunning, S. & Wilkes, A. (eds). (2009). Review of evidence on drylands pastoral systems and climate change. Implications and opportunities for mitigation and adaptation. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Rome. Downloadable from ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/012/i1135e/i1135e00.pdf
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