Chemical safety and biosafety

Pharmaceutical Residues in Freshwater

Hazards and Policy Responses

In series:OECD Studies on Waterview more titles

Published on November 13, 2019

This report calls for a better understanding of the effects of pharmaceutical residues in the environment, greater international collaboration and accountability distribution, and policy actions to prevent and remedy emerging concerns. Laboratory and field tests show traces of oral contraceptives causing the feminisation of fish and amphibians, and residues of psychiatric drugs altering fish behaviour. Antimicrobial resistance, linked to the overuse of antibiotics, has rapidly escalated into a global health crisis.Unless adequate measures are taken to manage the risks, pharmaceutical residues will increasingly be released into the environment as ageing populations, advances in healthcare, and intensification of meat and fish production spur the demand for pharmaceuticals worldwide. The report outlines a collective, life-cycle approach to managing pharmaceuticals in the environment. A policy mix of source-directed, use-orientated and end-of-pipe measures, involving several policy sectors, can help to improve health and protect the environment.


Executive Summary
OECD Policy Recommendations on addressing pharmaceutical residues in freshwater
Defining the challenge of managing pharmaceuticals in water
Opportunities to build a policy-relevant knowledge base
Emerging policy instruments for the control of pharmaceuticals in water
Recommendations for the management of pharmaceuticals in freshwater
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"A combination of promoting hygiene practices to reduce the incidence of infection and disease, encouraging sustainable pharmaceutical design and production, spreading awareness of responsible pharmaceutical use and disposal, and improving environmental monitoring and risk assessment of pharmaceuticals, are critical steps to achieving the dual sustainable development goals of improving health and protecting the environment." 

Rodolfo Lacy – OECD Environment Director


On Thursday 14 November, Hannah Leckie and Bob Diderich of the Environment Directorate presented the key findings of the report, and how policy makers and other stakeholders can take action to reduce the risks. Watch the video recording.

Full slide presentation (ppt)

POLICY Highlights

Download the Policy Highlights (PDF) 

Video Interview

OECD’s Hannah Leckie presents and discusses the key findings and recommendations of the report:


infographic - Major pathways of release of human and veterinary pharmaceuticals into the environment


Number of pharmaceuticals detected in surface water, groundwater or drinking water globally


Source: aus der Beek, T. et al. (2016), “Pharmaceuticals in the environment-Global occurrences and perspectives”, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Vol. 35/4, pp. 823-835,

Related work 



  • For more information, please contact Hannah Leckie of the OECD Environment Directorate.