Swedwatch calls for EU pharma strategy to protect rights and environment

ARTICLE | 24 September 2020

Despite the alarming and well-known risks of pharmaceutical pollution, pharmaceutical products are exempt from various EU provisions regulating chemicals. Swedwatch urges the European Commission to ensure that its Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe holds importers and producers to account for impacts on human rights, public health and the environment.   

Rising global demand for cheap medicine has increased the production of pharmaceuticals in low-cost countries. A large proportion of antibiotics and other medicines sold in the EU are made in non-EU countries, some of which have a history of alarming effluent releases linked to drug manufacturing. This pollution is known to cause severe impacts on local communities, but also poses a risk to global health as it constitutes an often neglected risk for the spread of antibiotic resistance (AMR).

Today, there are few incentives for importers and producers of pharmaceuticals to monitor or report on pollution. But meeting a rising demand for affordable medicines by EU citizens should not come at the cost of human lives and widespread environmental degradation.

Holding importers and manufacturers to account

In a submission to the Commission this month on the new Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe (full title Pharmaceutical Strategy, Timely Patient Access to Affordable Medicines), Swedwatch highlighted the pressing need to hold authorised importers and manufacturers accountable for the release of pharmaceutical effluents into the environment. Swedwatch also contributed to European NGO advocacy aimed at strengthening calls for EU regulation of pharmaceutical pollution in a European Parliament resolution adopted this month.

The Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe suggests a primary focus on innovation and affordability of medicines for European citizens. This was also demonstrated during a July stakeholder workshop – to which Swedwatch contributed along with European partners – that largely focused on innovation, accessibility, and affordability. This is highly concerning as several organisations, including the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have warned of high concentrations of pharmaceuticals contaminating the environment and called for a life-cycle approach to medicines, reducing the environmental footprint of pharmaceutical products.

Swedwatch’s report The Health Paradox earlier this year also highlighted the effects of pharmaceutical pollution in India’s pharma hub Hyderabad.

Toxic-free environment

There are positive developments in some EU states, most recently in Sweden where the government has underlined the need to reduce pharmaceutical effluent throughout the life cycle of medicines, not least in producing countries.

However, Swedwatch sees a need to emphasize that the European Commission must ensure that the Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe and its five-year action plan promote a toxic-free environment in line with the overarching goals of the European Green Deal and the New Industrial Strategy. To achieve this, enforcement of environmental and human rights due diligence obligations of pharmaceutical companies and state actors must be an integral part of the strategy.

It is time for the EU to take strong leadership in promoting a life cycle approach to medicines and reducing the environmental footprint of the pharmaceutical sector.