Documents considered by the Committee on 26 June 2019 Contents

2Pharmaceuticals in the environment

Committee’s assessment

Politically important

Committee’s decision

Cleared from scrutiny; drawn to the attention of the Environmental Audit Committee, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee.

Document details

Commission Communication: European Union Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment.

Legal base


Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Document Number

(40476), 7680/19; COM(19) 128

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

2.1The treatment of many diseases in humans and animals relies on access to effective pharmaceuticals. At the same time, pollution caused by some pharmaceuticals is an emerging problem, with evidence of risks to the environment and, in relation to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), potentially to human health. Residues of pharmaceutical products may enter the environment during their manufacture, use and disposal. The European Commission’s document set out a strategic approach to the issue, identifying several objectives and areas for action.

2.2We first considered the Commission’s document at our meeting of 15 May, requesting further analysis from the Minister. We noted that any changes to EU legislation in the future to reflect this policy challenge would potentially be of relevance to the UK post-Brexit in the light of commitments made in the Political Declaration on the future relationship. We asked the Minister to comment on the Commission’s definition of the problem and the strength of evidence underpinning the Commission’s conclusions.

2.3The Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Environment (Dr Thérèse Coffey MP) summarises17 the evidence18 on which the Commission’s conclusions were based. The Government considers that the Commission has been thorough in its synthesis of contemporary peer-reviewed, scientific literature relating to this subject. Moreover, it has been cautious in how it has interpreted conclusions from those sources of information since it has identified a number of evidence gaps in relation to the real-world, long-term (chronic) impacts pharmaceuticals in the environment may have on the health of animals or humans. The Minister believes that the Commission correctly identified the need for comprehensive environmental risk assessments before considering what action might need to be taken.

2.4The Government, says the Minister, has welcomed publication of the Commission’s document. In responding to the Commission’s earlier consultation, the UK was generally supportive of most of the policy options proposed by the Commission.

2.5The Government agrees with the Commission that tackling pharmaceuticals in the environment is a cross-cutting issue and will need the input of a wide range of stakeholders. At the UK level, the Department plans to work with policy leads, environmental regulators and stakeholders to develop a national plan to manage risks from pharmaceuticals in the environment. This work needs to be taken forward in parallel with that being undertaken by other countries and the EU itself. The Government is keen, says the Minister, to continue its collaboration with other countries on these issues and to learn from those who have been taking a lead on this in the EU, notably Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

2.6Other relevant work in which the UK is currently engaged is implementation of the five-year National Action Plan on AMR19 and international collaboration on AMR through UN bodies, such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

2.7Turning to the nature of future EU action, the Minister observes that any legislative action is likely to be taken forward via amendments to existing legislation, although the Commission has noted that this will be a long process and further research is needed before specific legislative measures to tackle pharmaceutical levels can be proposed (i.e. in the Water Framework Directive, Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and Industrial Emissions Directive).

2.8In general, says the Minister, the UK is committed to upholding its international obligations as it leaves the EU and will collaborate with its European and global partners to protect its environment. The UK will maintain its high regulatory standards for the environment post-Brexit, and would expect any future relationship agreement with the EU to contain a reciprocal non-regression commitment.

2.9We welcome the comprehensive information provided by the Minister, although we regret that she was unable to provide such analysis in her original Explanatory Memorandum. On Brexit, we note her expectation that the future relationship agreement would include a reciprocal non-regression commitment as well as her view that UK work in this area should be taken forward in parallel with that being undertaken at the EU-level.

2.10We clear the document from scrutiny and require no further information. This chapter is drawn to the attention of the Environmental Audit Committee, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee.

Full details of the documents

Commission Communication: European Union Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment: (40476), 7680/19; COM(19) 128.

Previous Committee Reports

Sixty-sixth Report HC 301–lxiv (2017–19), chapter 1 (15 May 2019).

17 Letter from Dr Thérèse Coffey MP to Sir William Cash MP, dated 6 June 2019.

Published: 2 July 2019