WHAT IS THE CHALLENGE?
Today, traces of some 200 pharmaceutical substances may be found in Swedish lakes and watercourses. Medicines are dispersed primarily via wastewater since, at present, treatment works cannot remove these substances. The presence of pharmaceutical residues in lakes and watercourses is itself undesired, but two key related questions are whether the low concentrations found can be hazardous for fauna and flora and whether they can contribute to antibiotic resistance.
Research in MistraPharma has shown that one of these substances, levonorgestrel, a synthetic hormone found in common contraceptive pills, is present in treated wastewater in concentrations that can make fish and frogs infertile.
Pharmaceutical substances are, in general, poorly investigated in terms of environmental hazards. Moreover, they require different testing methods from other chemicals in the environment, owing to their specific pharmacological properties. The research under way is about protecting biodiversity but also, by extension and on a broad front, surveying the chemical substances present in the environment for human beings.
HOW CAN THE PROGRAMME CONTRIBUTE TO A SOLUTION?
The main aims of MistraPharma are to identify pharmaceutical substances that pose risks in the aquatic environment and to propose strategies for risk reduction. Within the programme, the effects of pharmaceuticals on fish, frogs and water fleas are being tested. Mechanisms whereby antibiotic resistance arises are being studied, using molecular-biological techniques. New strategies are also being developed for early identification of environmentally hazardous drugs for the purpose of helping to improve legislation at EU level.
The programme also includes a project for developing technical processes for municipal wastewater treatment works to enable them to break down and remove the most hazardous pharmaceutical substances. This work is in progress both on a laboratory scale and in pilot projects on site at the works. One of the aims is to take these techniques closer to implementation.
WHO WILL BENEFIT FROM THE RESULTS?
In MistraPharma’s communication project, work is under way to ensure that the new knowledge obtained in the programme reaches the users in a form corresponding to their specific needs, while their wishes and knowledge needs are conveyed to the scientists. MistraPharma also has an influence on political decision-making processes, through its participation in one of the expert panels in the Swedish All-Party Committee on Environmental Objectives, which is to propose the Government’s forthcoming strategy for a Non-Toxic Environment.
The key users of results from the MistraPharma programme are:
- Swedish government agencies, especially the Medical Products Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Chemicals Agency
- Companies and organisations that treat and use water in order, for example, to deliver municipal drinking water or clean municipal wastewater
- The authorities responsible for public healthcare services
- The pharmaceutical industry.