Well, the bad news is that, up until recently, the pharmaceutical industry – and it’s fair to include some scientists here – lacked the foresight that would have raised the proverbial red flag on environmental pollution caused by their chemical compounds. The German newspaper Deutsche Welle has reported that, “In the 1990s, there was a common belief that long-term durability of molecules and materials would always be a good thing.”
The good news, also via the paper’s “Sci-Tech” section, is that an international group of chemists met in Berlin this month, and they are determined to put an end to pharmaceutical pollution – and they’re confident they can.
The key to the chemists’ “green drugs” is the use of biodegradable compounds that are readily consumed by bacteria in the environment. Biodegradable materials are already in use, of course, in products like plastics, so the challenge is applying that science to pharmaceuticals without reducing their efficacy.
I believe these chemists deserve high praise for their willingness to take action and even more for their refusal to simply accept status quo. The last thing we need is Big Pharma – recently dubbed “America’s new mafia” by the Daily Beast – holding scientists to a code of silence! These chemists are true pioneers of their profession. They even see opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to profit from green drugs, which will certainly grab the attention of drugmakers.
Speaking of which, it’s really a shame that the pharmaceutical manufacturers themselves failed to foresee the durability problem in their products. It’s not like sustainability is a brand new idea. This also brings up the question of whether the drugmakers and their chemists actually did know that their pharmaceuticals would, at some point, contaminate water, soil, and the organisms which inhabit them, and that they chose to look the other way.
One would like to give them the benefit of the doubt but, unfortunately, transparency isn’t Big Pharma’s strong suit. A scenario where the durability question was raised and subsequently ignored and/or obfuscated would fit their modus operandi quite well.
Meanwhile, these admirable chemists aren’t allowing such questions to slow their progress on solutions to the problem. As they (and I) see it, pharmaceutical residue in “wastewater, rivers, fish, and even polar bear fat” – as Deutsche Welle puts it – isn’t acceptable.
The scientific goal of green and sustainable chemistry, as explained by one of the chemists at the conference, is that, say some pills are discarded by someone flushing them down the toilet, the molecules of the pharmaceutical should break down into safe molecules – water and carbon dioxide.
While the scientists acknowledge that we are in the early stages yet of the move to green pharmaceuticals, they rightly assert that there’s no better time to start than the present. Let’s hope Big Pharma will also see it as an opportunity – not only to make money, but to take action as responsible world citizens.
In my upcoming book, DEADLY PRESCRIPTION, I examine a fictionalized underworld where the lines are often blurred between Big Pharma business and Big Pharma crime.