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The Hardest Pill to Swallow: The Impact of Drugs on the Environment

7 March 2019
Yuko Shimizu

Drugs, both illicit and legal, are an unspoken and largely unreported contributor to environmental degradation. They affect the environment in a magnitude of ways, many of which have only recently been understood. Regardless of your views on illicit drugs, we have all at one time or another participated in environmental degradation using drugs. Either by consumption of prescriptions or painkillers or the use of drugs recreationally; none of us are sober in this.

The most visible contributor to the destruction of the environment is cocaine. Studies have shown that nearly a quarter of the deforestation that has taken place in Peru is to clear space for the plant used to produce cocaine.[1] In Colombia, one single drug cartel is responsible for the slash and burn of two million hectares of rainforest, an area equivalent to the size of Wales.[2] One of the hardest things about environmental damage is making people aware of the effects they are having even if they can’t see it first-hand. After all, how many people would continue to abuse drugs, such as cocaine, if they also had to watch the rainforest being torn down with every line?

Unfortunately, illegal drugs are not wholly responsible for the damage caused to the environment.  When a person consumes medication, not all of that substance is absorbed into the body. Some of the drug will be excreted and will end up in our sewage systems. Most sewage systems do not have the capabilities to remove these substances and so many of them end up in the wild. In areas of water known to have high levels of drug contamination we have seen biodiversity loss of up to 75%.[3]

 In 2016, a report was published showing that 48% of people in the UK take a prescribed medicine at least once a week (this did not include the contraceptive pill).[4] Antidepressants make up 10% of the daily prescriptions consumed in the UK. When trace amounts of these antidepressants have been found in the environment, they have caused reduced feeding levels in Starlings.[5]

 Maybe instead you’re one of the 44% of people taking the contraceptive pill[6]. In a study completed at the university of New Brunswick, synthetic oestrogen, the active ingredient found in the combined contraceptive pill, was shown not only to eradicate a species of newt but consequently lead to the dramatic breakdown of that ecosystem, as levels of trout, the top predator of the newt, also decreased.[7]

And for those of you who don’t take antidepressants or the combined contraceptive pill, there are countless studies showing that antibiotics and certain painkillers are similarly as toxic to the environment.[8] Just what the doctor ordered.

Now, I want to make it clear I’m not suggesting that you should just throw out your prescriptions to save the environment. But, as an individual, it’s often hard to see how you can make a difference. Individual responsibility is the first step, and it starts with being aware of the effects modern day life have on the environment. This ensures that no one can avoid culpability by claiming ignorance. Step two is accepting that you are at least partly responsible for some of the damage. And step three should be to actively try and reduce your impact. These changes don’t have to be huge because if enough people make even small changes then these can add up to be very significant.[9] So, reduce consumption down to necessity. Don’t take painkillers in anticipation. Only take antibiotics if you absolutely need them. If you’re able to do so, maybe look at other forms of contraception. And obviously, stop taking cocaine.

Unfortunately, being aware is not enough to prevent further environmental breakdown, especially on the subject of drugs. Individual responsibility can only go so far. Think about it, as a drug consumer, you don’t get to choose the “eco-friendly” option. For many people, drugs aren’t something that you can start consuming sustainably. There’re no such thing as locally produced painkillers. So, what’s the next step? Scholarship in environmental politics continually highlights that large corporations and some state governments are producing an unfair share of the worlds pollutants and continually avoiding responsibility for their environmental impact. If we are to save the environment, this must stop.  We need legislation which prohibits irresponsible manufacturing processes. We need meaningful sanctions to prevent toxic run off into our oceans and we need better water treatment to ensure that even the drugs consumed out of necessity are not hurting our delicate ecosystems. We need systemic change and we need it now.

If you really want to make a difference towards the environment it’s time to stop sharing the same article on Facebook and instead write to your MP. And your MEP. But don’t just write once, write many times and get your friends to do the same. Attend protests such as the Global YouthStrike4Climate or Extinction Rebellion, both of which have regular protests and marches in all major cities across the country and can be easily found across social media platforms. Make banners. Be prepared to make sacrifices to the way you currently live your life. But most importantly, make enough noise that the people in charge will finally listen. Because, if we don’t, the planet is going to die and that will feel far worse than any come down.

Human use of psychoactive substances is universal. Our response needs to be universal as well. If we continue to allow drugs to impact the environment and don’t begin to hold large corporations and governments accountable for their actions, we could be one bad trip away from a drug problem we can’t control.

[1] Editor, E. (2013). What are Drugs Doing to Our Environment. [online] Environment News South Africa. Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018].

[2] Kettles, N. (2009). The environmental impact of drugs. [online] . Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018].

The Ecologist. Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018].

[3] Carrington, D. (2014). Drugs flushed into the environment could be cause of wildlife decline. the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018].

[4] National Statistics (2017). Health Survey for England 2016 Prescribed medicines. [online] Health and Social Care Information Centre. Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018]

[5] Bean, T., Boxall, A., Lane, J., Herborn, K., Pietravalle, S. and Arnold, K. (2014). Behavioural and physiological responses of birds to environmentally relevant concentrations of an antidepressant.
[online] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Available at: [Accessed 10 Nov. 2018].

[6] Schraer, R. (2018). Are women turning their back on the pill?. [online] BBC News. Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018].

[7] Kidd, K., Paterson, M., Rennie, M., Podemski, C., Findlay, D., Blanchfield, P. and Liber, K. (2014). Direct and indirect responses of a freshwater food web to a potent synthetic oestrogen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Available at: [Accessed 10 Nov. 2018].

[8] Kuster, A. and Adler, N. (2014). Pharmaceuticals in the environment: scientific evidence of risks and its regulation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, [online] 369(1656), pp.20130587-20130587. Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018].

[9] Stevenson, H. (2018). Global environmental politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p353