Documents considered by the Committee on 15 May 2019 Contents

1Pharmaceuticals in the environment

Committee’s assessment

Politically important

Committee’s decision

Not cleared from scrutiny; further information requested; drawn to the attention of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Environmental Audit 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

1.1The 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, potentially to human health. Residues of pharmaceutical products may enter the environment during their manufacture, use and disposal. The European Commission’s document sets out a strategic approach to the issue, identifying several objectives and areas for action.

1.2Pharmaceutical residues have been found in surface and ground waters, soils and animal tissues across the EU at various concentrations depending on the pharmaceutical and the nature and proximity of the source. Studies have shown direct effects on wildlife from some pharmaceuticals found in water and soil. Male fish, for example, have become feminised by exposure to the main ingredients of the contraceptive pill (oestrogen and progesterone), thus affecting the capacity of the population to reproduce. While no direct effect on human health has been established, it is considered that the presence of antimicrobial (antibiotic and antifungal) pharmaceuticals in water and soil is playing a role in accelerating the development, maintenance and spread of resistant bacteria and fungi. This makes antibiotics less effective and is known as antimicrobial resistance.

1.3The largest source of pharmaceuticals entering the environment is by use, either human or veterinary. Pharmaceuticals mainly reach the environment through: the discharge of effluent from urban waste water (sewage) treatment plants; the spreading of animal manure; and aquaculture (fish farming), in which pharmaceuticals are often dispensed with the animal feed. Other sources are: the discharge of effluent from manufacturing plants; the spreading of sewage sludge; grazing livestock; the treatment of pets; and improper disposal into landfill of unused pharmaceuticals and contaminated waste.

1.4Six areas for action are identified:

1.5The Commission identifies specific tasks and initiatives under each action area, falling either to the Commission exclusively or to the Commission along with stakeholders, Member States and/or the European Medicines Agency. The Communication focuses on actions that are starting, will be initiated and, in some cases, completed by 2020. The Commission states it will then take stock of progress made and decide on further steps whilst taking into account the outcomes of ongoing evaluations of the water legislation and relevant research.

1.6The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment (Dr Thérèse Coffey MP) says in her Explanatory Memorandum that the Government is committed to ensuring that the UK’s environmental standards are maintained, reflecting commitments made under existing EU legislation and including the ability to adapt to scientific and technical developments. The Government will reflect on all the suggestions in the Communication before deciding on any specific action. The Minister notes that the document contains no obligatory changes to waste water treatment.

1.7The Minister’s response to this document is limited to a commitment to reflect on it. We consider this response to be far below the required analysis. We ask the Minister to set out the Government’s view on:

1.8While we accept that the Government needs to reflect on its response to the proposed actions, it would be helpful if the Minister could set out any initial thoughts as well as a timetable for further reflection.

1.9It would also be helpful to set this work in the wider context of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. We see two particular elements that render UK engagement at this stage important:

1.10Based on the mutual commitments made in the Political Declaration on the future relationship, it seems to us likely that future EU policy in this area will have some bearing on UK policy. This makes it even more important that the Minister provides much more analysis of the document.

1.11Given the importance of the environmental and health issues raised, we retain the document under scrutiny. We ask the Minister to respond by 5 June 2019. 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


Published: 21 May 2019