Environmental pollution is a tremendous concern, and the sources of toxic pollution are many. One source that has managed to skirt below the radar is the drug industry.1,2,3,4 In 2016, the nonprofit foundation Changing Markets issued a report on “Impacts of Pharmaceutical Pollution on Communities and Environment in India,”5 on behalf of Nordea Asset Management, a major investment firm in Sweden.
According to this report, the severe water pollution problem in India can be, to a significant extent, traced back to the generic drug industry. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of contaminated waterways in India more than doubled, and by 2015, more than half of the nation’s rivers were polluted. India’s low cost of manufacturing has lured a number of drug companies to set up shop, congregating in the city of Hyderabad and along the Andhra Pradesh coastline.
According to a recent economic survey by the Finance Ministry of India, Hyderabad’s drug industry accounts for nearly half of the country’s drug exports.6 “Outsourcing of production to the emerging markets, where labor is cheap, workforces skilled and environmental standards lax, has now become second nature for the pharmaceutical majors, many of which are based in the United States and Europe,” the report noted.
The report also stressed that there’s a disturbing lack of transparency within the drug industry about the origin of active ingredients and the finished drugs, and that while regulators “who could easily demand greater transparency from the drug industry, have so far shied away from taking action.”
New Report Calls Renewed Attention to India’s Pollution Crisis
In a follow-up report,7 the Changing Markets Foundation now calls renewed attention to the pollution crisis in Hyderabad, with a focus on heavy metal and other toxic waste pollution created by the “bulk drug” industry operating in India.
Based on visits to the area, interviews with experts and locals, and analysis of published research and media articles, the report concludes that drug companies in Hyderabad continue to “discharge untreated or inappropriately treated wastewater into the environment and that local and national authorities are failing to get the situation under control.”
In fact, in the two years since the publication of the first report, the situation in Hyderabad has deteriorated further. What’s worse, plans to expand drug production in the city, combined with a lack of regulations to control toxic waste emissions, makes for “a grim future” for local residents in the area, the report warns.
In addition to the release of untreated effluent, local media investigations have revealed the practice of illegal toxic waste dumping, where drug companies are discarding hazardous waste under the cover of night, using unmarked vehicles.8,9 Mass die-offs of fish have also made headlines, and the dead fish were found to contain toxic solvents used during the drug manufacturing process.
Water sampling near drug factories in the area, collected in September 2017, reveal significant amounts of heavy metals — including lead, mercury, copper, cadmium, vanadium, hexavalent chromium, nickel, zinc and arsenic — as well as toxic industrial solvents, are being released into the city’s waterways.
“In some cases, these were found to be present at extremely high concentrations, orders of magnitude higher than maximum regulatory limits or safe exposure levels, which points to substantial human and ecological risk potential,” the report states, adding “The mere presence of some of these substances is cause for alarm given their extreme toxicity.”
Antibiotic Production Poses Grave Risks
The report also highlights previous studies showing factories manufacturing antibiotics pose a grave risk by fueling antibiotic resistance in the environment. Antibiotic pollution is a problem not only in India, but also in China, Pakistan, Korea, Denmark, Norway and Croatia, and promotes the development of drug-resistant pathogens.
In November 2016, German researchers collected water samples from "the direct environment of bulk drug manufacturing facilities, the vicinity of two sewage treatment plants, the Musi River and habitats in Hyderabad and nearby villages."10
Twenty-eight sampling sites were surveyed, and the water samples were analyzed for 25 anti-infective pharmaceuticals as well as multidrug-resistant pathogens and certain resistance genes. Disturbingly, all of the samples were contaminated with antimicrobials, including high concentrations of moxifloxacin, voriconazole and fluconazole. Area sewers also contained elevated concentrations of eight other antibiotics.
Some of the water samples contained antimicrobials at levels up to 5,500 times higher than the environmental regulation limit. What's more, more than 95 percent of the samples also contained multidrug-resistant bacteria and fungi. The researchers called the contamination "unprecedented" and blamed it on "insufficient wastewater management by bulk drug manufacturing facilities, which seems to be associated with the selection and dissemination of carbapenemase-producing pathogens."