As environmentalists continue to generate awareness on how animals and plants in the environment are affected by big pharma, politicians have created new laws that affect the industry. For example, in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires pharmaceutical companies under the National Environmental Policy Act to submit an environmental assessment for each new drug they produce, with the European Union passing a similar law in 2006. These tests have helped the industry to alter drugs that might affect the environment in a negative manner.
European scientists in Germany and Sweden have performed studies detailing how pharmaceuticals get into the vital environmental areas, such as lakes and rivers. These studies have shown that many common drugs get into the environment simply through the sweat or urine of individuals using pharmaceutical products. However, the most dangerous levels of pharmaceuticals are usually found in close proximity to facilities such as sewage plants.
There continues to be a disagreement between some in the pharmaceutical industry and environmentalists. For example, Martin Maurer, the head of a water treatment facility in Germany, commented, “An aspirin has 500 milligrams, so we would have to drink several million liters of water to get rid of a headache,” says Maurer.
Still, there are very real effects on many of the animals who are exposed to pharmaceuticals, such as the fish living in lakes near pharmaceutical plants. Scientists in Europe and in North America studied the long term effects of fish exposed to high levels of pharmaceutical drugs. In Sweden, anti-anxiety drugs made fish display antisocial behavior. Fish exposed to antidepressants in the United States were less likely to reproduce. In Canada, a study looked at the effects of fish in sewage water with higher drug concentrations. In that study, the minnow population was decimated.
Some water waste plants, such as the Karlsruhe plant in Germany that Maurer heads, are actually taking steps to reduce the pharmaceuticals in water. But many pharmaceuticals are built to withstand bacteria, and other elements are still not at a high enough concentration in the water to be easily removed.