All About Green

Medicines - Helping People but Harming the Environment

Originally published in Green Country, Issue 127 (Aug 2017)
Author: Green Power
lots of medicine
Photo from Pixabay

Medicines help to cure diseases and restore people’s health. Yet they are also among the most difficult to handle pollutants. At present, clinical waste generated from hospitals is sent to the Chemical Waste Treatment Centre, but domestic use of medicine is disposed of or discharged directly. The latter waste may be in smaller volumes than from hospitals, but taking the whole population into account, the total amount is significant and, more importantly, the waste medicines may enter the environment and the ecosystem.

Medicines used at home are eventually transferred with other waste to landfills, or flushed down toilets. The existing solid waste and sewage treatment facilities do not have the capacity to decompose or separate the medicines. Leftover medicines may dissolve in water and be discharged into the rivers or sea through the landfills and sewage treatment plants. Hormones in these leftover medicines may affect the reproductive systems of wild animals, and antibiotics may strengthen resistance of bacteria, leading to superbugs./p>

A decade ago, in 2007, there was study on the level of antibiotics in Victoria Harbour. This showed that most antibiotics were in low concentrations, except for ERY-H2O. There was no follow up investigation, as the effects of antibiotics were not clear at that time. It was not until 2013, when an American study indicated that antibiotic resistance had been developing in bacteria of a polluted local river that attracted worldwide concern. Last year, a study in Hong Kong revealed that among 23 river sites that were sampled, there was medium environmental risk from the antibiotic Ofloxacin at 20% of the sites.

All around the world, efforts have been launched to recycle leftover medicines. In the United States, there are community medicine recycling and donation schemes. In Taiwan, numerous medicine recycling stations have been set up. The Taipei city government even marked the recycling stations on Google Map, to encourage the public to recycle medicines.

In Hong Kong, the College of Pharmacy Practice started a medicine recycling programme in 2014, but this was unsuccessful and ended after just four months. Today, public awareness of the environmental impacts of leftover medicines is still low here. And without a proper recycling programme, the pollution problem shall keep us alarmed for some time.