Antibiotics from pharmaceutical companies are poisoning Indian rivers: Toxics Link Study

As if pollution from trash, industrial effluents, and sewage weren’t enough to harm the health of Indian rivers, a recent study has discovered that antibiotic residues are now a threat.

New Delhi, India, As if pollution from trash, industrial effluents, and sewage weren’t enough to harm the health of Indian rivers, a recent study has discovered that antibiotic residues are now a threat. ‘Menace of Antibiotic Pollution in Indian Rivers,’ a new report by Toxics Link released on Friday, has highlighted severe concerns about antibiotic residues identified in river water samples from four Indian rivers, including the Yamuna (New Delhi), Gomti (Lucknow), Zuari (Goa), and Cooum (Chennai).

Antibiotic residues have been discovered in Indian rivers, which may contribute to the growing problem of “antimicrobial resistance” and its detrimental impacts on the ecology and human health, according to the study.

These river water samples included three antibiotics: Ofloxacin, Norfloxacin, and Sulfamethoxazole. The Yamuna contained Ofloxacin (0.71 Aug/L) and Sulfamethoxazole (0.2 Aug/L), while the Zuari contained Norfloxacin (0.93 Aug/L). The Gomti and Cooum both contained ofloxacin (0.54 Aug/L).

“All of the antibiotics identified are found to be 2 to 5 times higher than the draught notification limits established by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change for the relevant compounds,” stated Omkar Gaonkar, Toxics Link’s Program Coordinator.

The study’s sample size is small, but the findings are frightening and point to the likelihood of widespread antibiotic pollution throughout the country, according to a Toxics Link press release.

“Most notably, the sites where antibiotic residues are found are not always near to big pharmaceutical industry hubs.” As a result, the study raises concerns about the origins of antibiotic residues in these rivers, which can come from both treated and untreated sewage,” said Satish Sinha, Associate Director of Toxics Link.

Antibiotics are vital life-saving drugs that serve a critical role in human health. However, indiscriminate antibiotic usage and a lack of regulatory requirements for antibiotics in pharmaceutical industry effluents are causing this enormous health danger, particularly in India. “India is one of the world’s largest users and producers of antibiotics, making it more vulnerable to the negative consequences of antibiotic pollution,” stated Toxics Link Senior Programme Coordinator Piyush Mohapatra.

Western governments have warned of more sanctions should the crisis escalate.

Dr Reddy’s and Sun Pharma, which have significant front-end presence in both Russia and Ukraine, said they are closely monitoring the situation, adding that their primary focus at the moment is to ensure safety of employees.

“Ensuring the well-being of our staff is the first and foremost priority, along with meeting patient needs and business continuity,” said a spokesperson at Dr Reddy’s that has had a presence in the region for more than three decades. “We have been monitoring developments closely and preparing accordingly.”

India’s largest drug maker Sun Pharma, which has presence in both the countries, said it is “hoping for the best outcome”. “We are in constant touch with our employees in both countries and they are safe,” a company spokesperson said.

India had exported pharmaceuticals worth $591 million to Russia and worth $182 million to Ukraine in 2020-21, as per Pharmaceuticals Export Promotion Council (Pharmexcil) under the commerce department. Dinesh Dua, former chairman of Pharmexcil and CEO of Nectar Lifesciences, said the impact on pharmaceutical exports may not be huge. However, if the sanctions against Russia by the West escalate, then the industry may find it hard to do any business there, he said.

Indian drug makers had similar problems with Iran and Venezuela in the past. “In Iran we couldn’t transact business for a very long time,” Dua said. “Russia business may possibly become like that.”

Russia accounts for 2.4% of total pharmaceutical exports from the country while Ukraine has a share of 0.74%. India exported pharmaceuticals worth $24.5 billion in FY21. Revenues from Russia for Dr Reddy’s was about ₹1,580 crore, or 8.5% of its total revenues, in FY21. It is also among top 10 pharma companies in Ukraine.

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