Life cycle impacts and environmental fate of pharmaceuticals: The fate of APIs

Areas of Concern

All xenobiotic materials released through human activities have the potential to cause issues in the environment, including but not limited to pharmaceuticals. It is the fact that pharmaceuticals exhibit biological activities that has led to their consideration as an area of concern – this is especially true of antibiotics, oncology drugs and drugs exhibiting endocrine disrupting activities. For example, a number of oestrogenic residues like ethinyl estradiol (EE2) are known to be very potent and deleterious to health, but for most APIs the risk to human health is considered negligible in a high quality drinking water source.[1][2][3]The volumes of water needed to consume a single therapeutic dose of APIs present as micro-contaminants are high.[4][5] Unfortunately, access to high quality, pure drinking water is not a universal human benefit, and serious issues can arise if drinking water sources become contaminated with high levels of APIs.[6]  Even for EE2, the data suggests that there will only be a risk at high point source concentrations of EE2.[7] [8]

Pharmaceuticals are a small sector of a wider chemical industry where current data on the fate and biological activity in the environment is very limited. [9] Outside of the pharmaceutical industry, some widely used industrial chemicals have been shown to have potent endocrine disruption potential (e.g. phthalates, alkylphenols) [10].

Apart from potential effects on humans, the presence of APIs in aquatic and other environments can cause undesired effects in other species – for highly active compounds like hormones and central nervous system (CNS) drugs these effects could be expected to occur at low concentration levels. It is clear that the increasing estrogenicity of water has led to issues with the feminisation of male fish, although the effects of other APIs from the CNS class are unclear.[11][12][13]

While in most cases, the scientific study and debate continues regarding the potential of harm caused by PIE, there are a number of instances where pharmaceuticals in the environment have caused well documented problems – diclofenac and the Gyps vultures being a notable example. At the turn of the century, a large and precipitous decline in the population of Gyps vulture species was noted in the Indian sub-continent, and three species are now listed as critically endangered.[14][15] This was traced to the presence of the NSAID diclofenac in the corpses of cattle and other farm animals utilised by the vultures as a food source. Gyps vultures are very sensitive to diclofenac (LD50 < 1000 μg kg-1), which causes acute and lethal kidney failure. India, Nepal and Pakistan banned the veterinary use of diclofenac, but recent data suggests ~5% of animal corpses still contain high levels of diclofenac.[16]



  1. M. Schriks, M. B. Heringa, M. M. E. van der Kooi, P. de Voogt and A. P. van Wezel, Toxicological relevance of emerging contaminants for drinking water quality, Water Research, 2010, 44, 461-476.
  2. Vde Jesus Gaffney, C. M. M. Almeida, A. Rodrigues, E. Ferreira, M. João Benoliel and V. Vale Cardoso, Occurrence of pharmaceuticals in a water supply system and related human health risk assessment, Water Research, 2015, 72, 199-208.
  3. N. C. Rowney, A. C. Johnson and R. J. Williams, Cytotoxic drugs in drinking water: A prediction and risk assessment exercise for the thames catchment in the United Kingdom, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2009, 28, 2733-2743.
  4. P. E. Stackelberg, E. T. Furlong, M. T. Meyer, S. D. Zaugg, A. K. Henderson and D. B. Reissman, Response to comment on “Persistence of pharmaceutical compounds and other organic wastewater contaminants in a conventional drinking-water-treatment plant”, Science of the total environment, 2006, 354, 93-97.
  5. C. A. Kinney, E. T. Furlong, S. L. Werner and J. D. Cahill, Presence and distribution of wastewater‐derived pharmaceuticals in soil irrigated with reclaimed water, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2006, 25, 317-326.
  6. WHO Water Sanitation Health (Last accessed: ).
  7. J. P. Laurenson, R. A. Bloom, S. Page and N. Sadrieh, Ethinyl Estradiol and Other Human Pharmaceutical Estrogens in the Aquatic Environment: A Review of Recent Risk Assessment Data, AAPS J, 2014, 16, 299-310.
  8. A. Wise, K. O’Brien and T. Woodruff, Are oral contraceptives a significant contributor to the estrogenicity of drinking water?†, Environmental science & technology, 2010, 45, 51-60.
  9. D. Taylor and T. Senac, Human pharmaceutical products in the environment – The “problem” in perspective, Chemosphere, 2014, 115, 95-99.
  10. E. Rahman Kabir, M. Sharfin Rahman and I. Rahman, A review on endocrine disruptors and their possible impacts on human health, Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology, 2015, 40, 241-258.
  11. W. Sanchez, W. Sremski, B. Piccini, O. Palluel, E. Maillot-Maréchal, S. Betoulle, A. Jaffal, S. Aït-Aïssa, F. Brion, E. Thybaud, N. Hinfray and J. - M. Porcher, Adverse effects in wild fish living downstream from pharmaceutical manufacture discharges, Environment International, 2011, 37, 1342-1348.
  12. N. Gilbert, Drug waste harms fish, Nature News, 2011, 476, 265-265.
  13. J. P. Sumpter, R. L. Donnachie and A. C. Johnson, The apparently very variable potency of the anti-depressant fluoxetine, Aquatic Toxicology, 2014, 151, 57-60.
  14. M. A. Taggart, K. R. Senacha, R. E. Green, R. Cuthbert, Y. V. Jhala, A. A. Meharg, R. Mateo and D. J. Pain, Analysis of nine NSAIDs in ungulate tissues available to critically endangered vultures in India, Environmental science & technology, 2009, 43, 4561-4566.
  15. M. A. Taggart, K. R. Senacha, R. E. Green, Y. V. Jhala, B. Raghavan, A. R. Rahmani, R. Cuthbert, D. J. Pain and A. A. Meharg, Diclofenac residues in carcasses of domestic ungulates available to vultures in India, Environment International, 2007, 33, 759-765.
  16. M. Saini, M. A. Taggart, D. Knopp, S. Upreti, D. Swarup, A. Das, P. K. Gupta, R. Niessner, V. Prakash, R. Mateo and R. J. Cuthbert, Detecting diclofenac in livestock carcasses in India with an ELISA: A tool to prevent widespread vulture poisoning, Environmental Pollution, 2012, 160, 11-16.