While pharmaceuticals may often be lifesavers, they are also the product of a massive global industry that manufactures compounds that can interfere, in myriad and unintended ways, with complex biological functions. They are often designed to break down slowly and have yet-unknown consequences to the environment. As a new Government report points out, they also contribute significantly to global warming: NHS drug-purchasing alone is responsible for millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.
The ecological cost is publicly invisible, but all the bioactive chemicals we ingest ultimately enter the water system, either through lavatories or refuse disposal. Thus they contaminate the food chain and our drinking water. As a result, each of us now consumes between 50g and 150g of active pharmaceutical ingredients a year via our tap water, according to a report by the UK Drinking Water Inspectorate in November 2007. The cumulative result is… Well, we don’t know, because nobody is trying too hard to find out. Despite oficial indifference, however, a picture is starting to emerge. And it looks worrying.